Lau Tzu once said: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In Nepal, getting to that first step has been a tumultuous process. Tomorrow, a court in the western district of Dailekh is expected to formally begin hearings in the 2004 murder case of journalist Dekendra Raj Thapa.
"This is an important case and signifies a meaningful step in reducing impunity in Nepal," Shiva Gaunle, president of the Federation of Nepali Journalists, told CPJ by phone. Maoist rebels claimed to have killed Thapa, a journalist for state-run Radio Nepal, accusing him of spying for state security forces during the armed struggle between Maoists and the monarchy.
The lead-up to the hearings has been dizzying. Police earlier this month arrested five men in connection to Thapa's murder, following a complaint lodged by his widow, Laxmi Thapa, back in August 2008. Four of the accused are district-level leaders of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which heads the coalition government of Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, and the other is affiliated with the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, a breakaway faction of the ruling party, according to news reports.
The investigation into the case froze following Attorney General Mukti Pradhan's order on January 11 to stop interrogation of the accused. The probe eventually resumed, after a writ was filed on January 13 by the Democratic Lawyers' Association and Nepal Press Union seeking court intervention.
Immediately following the arrests, Bhattarai had condemned the move, claiming it would derail the country's delicate peace process. His condemnation moved journalists to protest against what they called Bhattarai's interference in the murder investigation.
In the midst of protests, which turned ugly in some parts of the country, journalists in Dailekh said they were issued death threats by cadres of the ruling party, prompting 22 journalists to flee to a neighboring district last week. Following assurances by Home Minister Bijay Kumar Gacchedar, the journalists returned home Tuesday.
Bhattarai appeared before the Supreme Court earlier this week and denied accusations that he was behind the order to halt the investigation into Thapa's murder, or that his statement condemning the arrests amounted to interference in the case, according to local media reports.
Nepal ranks sixth on CPJ's Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are murdered regularly and killers go free.