Nepal army chief’s Britain visit stirs fresh controversy

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS

Kathmandu : After a bitter row between Nepal's Maoists and Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala over soldiers deployed as ministerial guards, the chief of Nepal's army is at the centre of a fresh controversy with human rights defenders questioning his Britain visit.

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Even as the Maoists threatened to quit the coalition government over suspicions about their army guards, General Rukmangad Katawal, chief of the Nepal Army, kicked up a fresh row with his five-day visit to Britain at the invitation of the British ministry of defence.

Twenty human rights defenders, including the head of an organisation that is seeking to get justice for a schoolgirl killed by three army officers, are protesting against the non-ceremonial visit that began Sunday, saying the visit "sends the wrong signal to the government of Nepal, the army and indeed the general public".

The rights activists have handed over a letter of protest to the British ambassador in Nepal, Andrew Hall, pointing out that Katawal was directly involved in "grave human rights violations" perpetrated by the army to stamp out the Maoist insurgency and was also one of the architects of the coup in 2005 that was backed by the army and enabled King Gyanendra to seize absolute power.

The protesters say that though a year has elapsed since the ouster of the royal regime and the new government has pledged to bring the army under its control, yet no members of the security forces have been brought to justice for crimes committed during the conflict or during the anti-king uprising last year, in which 25 people were killed by security forces.

Though several international bodies, including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal reported widespread and systematic violation of human rights by the army, it repeatedly failed to cooperate with courts and rights bodies.

Among the hundreds of cases of gross rights abuse, defenders are focusing on two cases that shocked the nation: the death of a teenaged schoolgirl Maina Sunuwar, who was tortured inside an army barrack, and the mass disappearance of Maoists from army barracks that became notorious for its secret torture camps where detainees were held for months constantly blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs.

"The perpetrators chose to cover up the killing," the letter to the British ambassador said. "Senior army staff chose to cover up the investigation. The cover-up continues under the army chief."

The protesters also say that the European Union has been consistently asking Nepal to end the culture of impunity and bring rights abusers to justice in order to help bring lasting peace.

"We fear that the Nepal Army will see this official visit as a sign of the British government's condoning of the Nepal Army's appalling record of human rights violations and their refusal to allow investigation and prosecution of alleged military perpetrators," the protesters said.

"In our view, there will be no peace in this country unless the longstanding climate of impunity is addressed.

"We urge the British government to urgently review its position and acknowledge the lack of impact to date of its engagement on human rights, and specifically accountability."

Since the British embassy is acting as the Nepal representative of Portugal, that holds the current EU presidency, the protesters said they are seeking assurances from Britain and other European governments that they "deplore the Nepal Army's lack of cooperation with ongoing investigations and will take initiatives to press the government and the Nepal Army to restore accountability in Nepal and thus contribute to sustainable peace and democracy".

Katawal, a protégé of the present king's father Mahendra, has been a controversial figure since his appointment as army chief last year with human rights activists condemning the appointment on the ground of his bleak human rights record.

His Britain visit has been flayed by a section of the British media as well.

The Guardian wrote that the Gordon Brown government was "wrong to roll out the red carpet for the head of a defiant army that so gravely imperils the path to democracy".

Stung by the criticism, the British government tried to defend the invitation, saying it would make Nepal more accountable.

A statement issued by the British embassy said the issue of human rights abuses would also be discussed during Katawal's visit.