In Nepal, killers of journalists could go free

September 15, 2011

Prime Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai

c/o Embassy of Nepal
2131 Leroy Place, NW
Washington, DC 20008

Via facsimile: 202-667-5534

Dear Prime Minister Bhattarai:

We are alarmed by recent reports regarding the planned amnesty of criminal cases pending from past political violence in Nepal and are writing to express our concern that people convicted of killing journalists could go free based on political decisions made by your government.

On August 25, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), of which you are vice-chairman, proposed withdrawing “politically motivated” cases filed against party leaders for crimes they committed during the decade-long armed insurgency, local and international news sites reported. This proposal, which would pardon those already convicted, was allegedly part of an agreement you made with the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF), a coalition of parties representing ethnic Madhesis, news reports said. Madhesi activists advocate autonomy or independence for the Terai plains, where CPJ has documented attacks against journalists as part of a frequently violent political movement. Political cases filed against Madhesi activists resulting from this movement will also be retracted under your proposal, news reports said.

In return for this proposal, you gained support from the UDMF in the parliamentary prime-ministerial elections on August 28 and were elected, news reports said.

You have assured critics that your government will not grant amnesty to criminals, according to local news reports. Yet the proposal, as analyzed in public reports, includes no definition of a politically motivated indictment, no plans to investigate which cases qualify, and no compensation or appeal for victims. As such, it has disturbing ramifications for the prosecution of any crime committed in the past 15 years. If this proposal is realized, it would codify the existing climate of impunity for the murders of journalists and others, both before and since the insurgency.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Mukti Pradhan, whom you appointed on September 9, said that all cases against Maoists and the state for conflict-related violence constitute political cases, and would thus be withdrawn, The Himalayan Times reported. He said in an interview with Republica the decision was justified under Clause 5.2.7 of the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which states that both sides guarantee the withdrawal of cases filed on political grounds. “Neither the Supreme Court nor any law prohibits us” from implementing this clause, he said. “We ask national and international human rights watchdogs to abide by provisions incorporated in the CPA.”

We believe that a blanket withdrawal of criminal cases would be abusing and not adhering to the peace accord. Opposition politicians, civil-society groups, and journalists within Nepal also say that your proposal undermines the peace process.

Maoists have already invoked the peace agreement to evade prosecution. The government, under Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, withdrew in February the case of the 2007 disappearance and possible murder of pro-monarchy freelancer Prakash Singh Thakuri, as well as 349 others that it said were political crimes committed during the conflict, The Kathmandu Post reported. Nepal’s Supreme Court–during opposition Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) chair Jhalnath Khanal‘s brief tenure as prime minister–however, overruled the withdrawal and said that since Thakuri was abducted more than seven months after the insurgency was over, the case did not qualify under the terms laid out in the peace accord, according to the Post. The court reinstated the Thakuri case on August 23, local press freedom group Freedom Forum said.

Nepal already has an appalling record for prosecuting killers of journalists, 7th worst in the world, according to CPJ’s 2011 Impunity Index, which calculates unsolved murders as a percentage of the country’s population. Withdrawing any cases relating to the six unsolved or partially solved media killings CPJ has documented in Nepal since 2002 would be an injustice to those who were slain reporting on both sides of the country’s brutal conflict. It would also encourage a continuance of the attacks, threats, and harassment that journalists face nationwide in Nepal today, by implying that your government places no value on defending press freedom.

This May, you told local press freedom group the Federation of Nepali Journalists that your party would “not make any compromise on press freedom.” This planned amnesty would be such a compromise. We urge you not to sacrifice justice for political interest, but to use your influence with the Maoist and Madhesi groups to ensure a full and fair accounting for past crimes against the press.

Thank you for your consideration.

Yours sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director