Sapkota becomes Speaker amid concerns from conflict victims and rights watchdogsThe House elected the former Maoist leader unopposed, hours after a court hearing on a writ against him was stalled.
Tika R Pradhan
Agni Sapkota, a standing committee member of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives on Sunday, despite widespread concerns over a pending murder case against him for a conflict-era killing.
Since his nomination for Speaker by the ruling party, human rights activists, conflict victims and international rights organisations had called on the Nepal government and the political parties to not undermine the transitional justice by appointing a person facing murder charges to such a high-level position in the state.
Sapkota faces charges of the abduction and murder of Arjun Lama of Kavrepalanchowk in 2005. A hearing on the case at the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Bench is scheduled for February 5.
On Friday, senior advocate Dinesh Tripathi had filed a writ petition at the Supreme Court, demanding Sapkota’s immediate arrest, an investigation into the charges he is facing, dismissal of his nomination as Speaker, and a halt to the Speaker’s election.
Although the hearing on the writ was scheduled for Sunday, the same day as the Speaker’s election, the case could not be heard as it had been assigned to Judge Hari Phuyal, who, back in 2011 as a practicing lawyer had argued on behalf of a group of human rights activists who had filed a case against Sapkota for the insurgency-era killing. The case will now be assigned to another judge due to Phuyal’s conflict of interest.
Hours later, Sapkota was elected unopposed.
“We have already informed the Office of the President about the election of the new Speaker,” Gopal Nath Yogi, secretary at the House of Representatives’ Secretariat, told the Post. “Sapkota will take the oath of office and secrecy on Monday.”
Advocate Tripathi said that he will register a supplementary petition to demand that the court bar Sapkota from functioning as Speaker.
The Speaker post had been vacant since early October last year after Krishna Bahadur Mahara stepped down following allegations of attempted rape.
Sapkota, a Maoist leader since 1995, was ruling party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s choice. Nepal Communist Party Co-chair and Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, however, was in favour of Subash Nembang, who was the chairman of the Constituent Assembly twice in the past.
Oli agreed on Sapkota’s name after a month-long negotiation with Dahal, just as Shiva Maya Tumbahangphe was staking claim to the post, saying she was the most deserving candidate as Deputy Speaker.
The ruling party leadership, however, was reluctant to give the Speaker’s post to Tumbahangphe and had asked her to resign.
Women leaders from the ruling party and members of the public had censured the ruling party for sidelining Tumbahangphe and said that the reluctance to accept a woman as Speaker had once again exposed the patriarchy deeply entrenched in the Nepal Communist Party.
Party insiders, however, had told the Post last week that the agreement on Sapkota was a part of a larger deal, which included officials in the transitional justice commissions and appointments in constitutional bodies, between the ruling and opposition parties.
The ruling party decided to nominate Sapkota as Speaker on January 19, a day after Oli, Dahal and Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba reached a deal on appointing officials to the two transitional justice commissions.
The Nepali Congress chose not to field any candidate against Sapkota, paving the way for his election as Speaker unopposed.
The international community has long criticised the Nepal government and the parties for failing to conclude the transitional justice process, which has been dragging on for over a decade now.
Agreements on officials for the transitional justice commissions and Sapkota as Speaker came on the heels of a public statement by Dahal on war-era deaths.
At a programme on January 15 in the Capital, Dahal said he was ready to take responsibility for 5,000 deaths during the conflict.
“Of the 17,000 killed during the war, 12,000 were killed by the state,” said Dahal.
Many in the ruling party believe that by pushing Sapkota for the Speaker post, Dahal wanted to send a message that insurgency-era cases should be dealt with by the transitional justice mechanisms, rather than regular courts.
Conflict victims said that the parties’ have now made their intentions clear by appointing a murder accused to lead the state’s law-making body.
“Our hopes of getting justice have now been dashed,” said Suman Adhikari, former chairperson of the Conflict Victims’ Common Platform. “The way the Speaker has been elected shows that the government and parties are bent on institutionalising impunity. This will damage the country’s image in the international arena.”
On Saturday, a day before Sapkota’s election as the House Speaker, four international human rights organisations issued a statement saying that the move to nominate a person accused of murder undermined the transitional justice process.
In a statement, the International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and TRIAL International described the recent steps taken by the Nepal government and the parties—on transitional justice appointments and the Speaker—as a serious setback for the transitional justice process.
They even warned that conflict victims would be forced to seek justice internationally under universal jurisdiction if the Nepal government and parties continued to ignore their concerns.
Human rights activists said that Sunday’s developments once again show a lack of accountability towards the transitional justice process.
“Such incidents send a message to the world that Nepal, despite its commitments, is not keen to uphold human rights,” Charan Prasai, a human rights activist, told the Post. “Such moves promote impunity and trample the rule of law. Elevating a person accused of murder sends a clear message that the parties are capable of using the state apparatus to give clean chits to human rights violators.”