Custodial deaths continue with little being done towards investigationMost of those dying in custody under suspicious conditions are from marginalised groups.
Despite concerns from the United Nations and domestic and international human rights organisations, cases of custodial deaths have continued in Nepal with little progress in investigating them.
On May 16, Sundar Harijan, a prisoner, allegedly killed himself by hanging inside Rolpa Prison. Though the police claim he died by suicide, his family does not agree. A few days before the incident, Harijan had called his family in Nepalgunj on the phone saying he would be released soon. The family hasn’t performed his cremation rites demanding a fair investigation.
The Post’s sister paper Kantipur on Saturday published a detailed report on Harijan’s imprisonment for a crime committed by another person and his death under suspicious circumstances.
Harijan was serving a jail term in place of Bijay Bikram Shah. Four days after Harijan's death, the Home Ministry on May 20 formed a five-member committee led by Jharendra Prasad Chapagain, director of the Department of Prison Management, to investigate the matter.
Ten days after Harijan’s custodial death, another incident was reported in Banke.
A 47-year-old man from the district allegedly died by suicide by hanging inside the Area Police Office, Kohalpur on Thursday.
Reports by different domestic and international human rights organisations show custodial deaths have continued in Nepal.
In its global annual report released on March 29, Amnesty International said several deaths in custody were reported last year—mostly of detainees from marginalised Dalit and Madhesi communities. However, no independent investigations were carried out, it said.
According to the report, Paltu Ravidas was found dead in the toilet of the Dhanusha District Police Office after being detained by police in July last year.
And in September, Bhim Kamat died in the custody of the District Police Office, Morang.
Then in October, Mohammad Hakim Shah and Dhan Bahadur Rana died in custody of the Sunsari and Kailali district police offices, respectively.
“In Nepal, torture and other ill-treatment were widely used in pre-trial detention to extract ‘confessions’ and intimidate detainees,” reads the report. “There had yet to be any convictions under the 2017 Criminal Code, which criminalises such practices.”
Similarly, amid increasing reports of custodial deaths and police torture of people from minorities, four United Nations special rapporteurs on human rights in January last year asked the Nepal government to provide details of investigations and actions taken against perpetrators, if any.
In their written correspondence to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the special rapporteurs have mentioned six cases of deaths either in police custody or in police action between October 2019 and August 2020 and sought details on the steps taken towards providing justice to the victims.
They wrote to the government after little was done to investigate the custodial deaths, many of which were suspicious. The National Penal Code that came into force in 2018 has criminalised torture and includes a provision of up to five years of imprisonment for the perpetrators in addition to compensation for the victims.
Section 167 (1) of the code says no official authorised by the law to investigate or prosecute any offence, implement law, take anyone into control, or hold anyone in custody or detention in accordance with law, shall subject, or cause to be subjected, anyone to physical or mental torture or to cruel, brutal, inhuman or degrading treatment.
A person who commits the offence referred to in subsection as per the section is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or a fine not exceeding Rs50,000 or both, according to the penal code.
Nirajan Thapaliya, director at Amnesty International Nepal, said as the police personnel are involved in many of such incidents, largely there is no investigation into them. “The culture of impunity is largely responsible for the continuation in the incidents of custodial deaths,” he told the Post. “It is serious that the police seldom register complaints in such cases.”
Following the report of lack of action on custodial deaths, a subcommittee was formed under the Law and Human Rights Committee of the House of Representatives.
The committee had recommended formulating a working procedure to carry out investigations in such incidents. However, the government has not yet developed the working procedure.
“We found the custodial deaths suspicious. Even if a death is by suicide, it is necessary to find out reasons for it,” Uma Shankar Argariya, a member of the committee, told the Post. “The police seldom register complaints in such cases and I don’t see the government being serious either.”
Those who have investigated such cases say proper actions under criminal office must be taken so as to provide justice to the victims.
Loknath Bastola, chief of the Investigation Department at the National Human Rights Commission, said several investigations by the commission in the past show torture meted out by police was responsible for the deaths.
“Currently we are in the final stages of investigating four other cases and two of them are related to murder,” he told the Post. “The police involved must face actions for criminal offence. However, in most cases there is no action. In a few cases the police have taken departmental action against their personnel, instead of charging them with criminal offence.”