Nepal convicts soldiers of killing girl during civil war

KATHMANDU, (AFP): Three former Nepalese soldiers have each been sentenced in absentia to 20 years in jail for killing a teenage girl, only the second conviction for crimes committed during a decade-long civil war which ended in 2006.

Fifteen-year-old Maina Sunuwar was tortured and killed after she was detained by the army in 2004 for alleged links to Maoist rebels.

But a military tribunal the following year ruled that her death was accidental and charged the three soldiers involved in the case with only minor offences.

Maina’s mother brought a case in a civilian court which delivered its verdict on Sunday, a court official told AFP.

But none of the three convicted are currently in custody, and rights groups have raised concerns they may never serve their sentences.

A fourth soldier, the most senior of all those accused, was acquitted.

“We have fought for justice for so many years, I’m glad the court has understood our plight,” Sunuwar’s mother Devi told AFP.

“But our fight is not over. I’m worried the decision might be limited to paper. The state must implement the court’s decision.”

Devi campaigned for years for justice for her daughter, who was arrested when soldiers came to their home looking for her mother.

Devi had days earlier publicly accused government forces of raping and murdering her niece.

“We believed that Maina had been taken, and perhaps killed, only to punish her mother,” said Advocacy Forum Nepal, a legal rights group, in a report about the long-running case.

– Record of impunity –

A military tribunal in 2005 found that Sunuwar had been repeatedly held under water and given electric shocks to her feet and wrists during interrogation.

But it ruled that her death was accidental and the three soldiers named in the case were only charged with minor offences, including using improper interrogation techniques and failing to follow procedure.

They were sentenced to six months in detention but released immediately because the tribunal ruled they had already served their time while confined to barracks.

In 2007 the case was taken to the Supreme Court and an arrest warrant was issued the following year for the three soldiers and a major.

The major, Niranjan Basnet, who was found innocent on Sunday, is the only one of the accused still serving in the army, which has been repeatedly accused by activists of sheltering its men from prosecution.

“There is a worry, despite winning the case after so many years, the convicted might still not go behind bars,” said Mandira Sharma, a human rights lawyer and activist who worked on the case.

“But we are hopeful that it won’t happen… if the army as a public institution helps in arresting them and allowing them to serve their sentences, it will help increase confidence of the (other) victims.”

More than 17,000 people were killed during the civil war, which ended with a peace deal between Maoist insurgents and government forces.

Both sides stand accused of committing rights abuses during the conflict, but rights groups say little has been done to hold the perpetrators — many of whom still hold senior positions in the military and government — to account.

In December 2014 five former Maoist rebels were jailed for two years for torturing and killing a journalist, a sentence many criticised for being too lenient.

Nepal set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Disappeared in 2015, but investigations have made little progress due to a lack of funds and political inertia.

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