The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nepal brings out shocking stories of torturer, killings and human rights abuses from Bhairabnath Batallion, [Royal] Nepal Army’s counterpart to Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghrahib.
(This is the first part. The report continues in next blog)
[UWB Warning: Hold your breath before actually starting to read this horrific detail of torture and abuse.]
Introduction This is a report of OHCHR’s investigations into the arrest, detention, torture and continuing disappearance of individuals arrested by the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA, now the Nepalese Army) and held in Maharajgunj barracks in Kathmandu in 2003 on suspicion of being linked to the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN-M). Most of the hundreds of individuals who were arrested by the RNA in 2003 and detained for varying periods in Maharajgunj barracks were subjected to severe and prolonged ill-treatment and torture, with a principal role played by the Bhairabnath battalion.
Witnesses describe several occasions between approximately February and April 2004 in which they were marched from the Hall and the Garage to what is described as a ‘bunker’, a fifteen or twenty-minute walk from the main detention area. …..Orders to remain absolutely silent were strictly enforced with severe beatings. Handcuffs and blindfolds were tightened. Food was scarce. The Bunker area was described as a low depression in the ground.
To date, OHCHR has confirmed the identity of 49 individuals who were in the custody of Bhairabnath battalion between September and December 2003 but who remain disappeared. OHCHR’s continuing investigation suggests that the actual number in this category is significantly higher. The Government of Nepal has denied any knowledge of their fate or whereabouts. Their names are among those currently listed as unresolved disappearance cases maintained by various agencies, including the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID).
The Bhairabnath battalion acknowledges responsibility for the arrest and detention of 137 people during the period concerned and claims that these individuals were released or transferred after short periods of detention. However, absent from this list are at least forty-nine individuals known to OHCHR to have been held in the custody of the Bhairabnath or Yuddha Bhairab battalions.
The OHCHR rejects the RNA’s denial of responsibility on the basis of consistent, credible and corroborated testimony of victims and witnesses that these people were last seen in their custody in Maharajgunj. OHCHR initiated investigations into these serious allegations soon after it set up its office in Nepal in May 2005. It did so after dozens of relatives lodged complaints at its office. After preliminary investigations, OHCHR sent a formal letter of inquiry to the RNA Human Rights Cell on 19 August 2005 requesting that the RNA clarify 19 cases of disappearances which had also been publicly reported at the time. Despite repeated reminders, to date, no response has been received from the RNA. OHCHR has conducted more than fifty interviews with the families of the disappeared, with former detainees and with other witnesses and informants regarding their detention and torture.
OHCHR teams visited Bhairabnath and Yuddha Bhairab battalions on three occasions. It obtained an official list of all people held in detention at the army barracks since 2003. While these lists are relatively complete with regard to individuals who were held in unacknowledged detention during in 2003 and who were later acknowledged to be in RNA detention, transferred into custody elsewhere or released, at least 49 people do not appear on the list and continue to be disappeared. These names are listed in Annex A to this report along with details of their arrests.
The disappearances documented in this report occurred in 2003 following the breakdown of the second of three ceasefires in force during the 10-year-old armed conflict in Nepal. This bilateral ceasefire lasted from 29 January to 27 August 2003. Just before the start of the ceasefire, the CPN-M had killed Armed Police Force (APF) Inspector General Krishna Mohan Shrestha and his wife on 26 January 2003 while they were on a morning walk in the Patan area of the capital, Kathmandu.
The Inspector General is the most senior police or APF officer killed by the CPN-M to date. The ceasefire collapsed partly as a result of the massacre of 17 CPN-M members and two other civilians in Doramba, Ramechap District, on 17 August 2003. On 28 August 2003, Colonel (Col.) Kiran Bahadur Basnet was assassinated in his Kathmandu residence by two masked gunmen. He is one of the highest-ranking RNA officers to have been killed in the conflict.
In the months following the end of the ceasefire, violence increased sharply throughout the country, resulting in over 500 deaths within several weeks and the declaration of bandhs (‘general strikes’) and curfews in many districts by the CPN-M. The CPN-M conducted a number of operations in urban areas, including targeted attacks by small cells. The RNA conducted operations in remote areas, including the Maoist stronghold in Rolpa District. There was heightened international concern regarding increasing violations of international humanitarian law by the CPN-M as well as about increasing reports of unacknowledged detention, torture and ill-treatment by the RNA. By December 2003, on the occasion of a visit by then US Assistant Secretary of State, Christina Rocca, in which she expressed concern regarding alleged human rights abuses, RNA spokesperson Col. Deepak Gurung admitted excesses and stated that 17 soldiers had been jailed or suspended for abuses.
The pattern of RNA activity in the Kathmandu Valley during this period of escalating violence and violations of international humanitarian and human rights law demonstrates a concerted RNA operation to eliminate the CPN-M operational capacity in Kathmandu. Those arrested included, in particular, members of the All Nepal National Free Student Union (Revolutionary) (ANNFSU-R), the student wing of the CPN-M which had been declared illegal by the Government in 2002. They also included individuals not involved any violent activity or without any CPN-M affiliation. According to OHCHR’s findings to date, the 10th Brigade’s Bhairabnath battalion played a central role in this operation, including the arrest, detention and interrogation of CPN-M suspects.
This report focuses on Bhairabnath battalion operations from September through December 2003, at that time under the command of the then Lieutenant Colonel Raju Basnet, brother of assassinated Col. Kiran Basnet.
Arbitrary Arrest and Secret Detention
Hundreds of individuals were arrested in the Kathmandu Valley and held in unacknowledged detention by the Bhairabnath battalion and by the Yuddha Bhairab battalion in Maharajgunj between September and December 2003, and thereafter. These two battalions, together with the Mahabir battalion, form part of the RNA 10th Brigade, headquartered at Balaju, Kathmandu. They shared the Maharajgunj army camp while the Mahabir battalion was based in Chhauni army camp, as they still are today.
In spite of national and international norms governing detentions of suspected insurgents, including in times of internal armed conflict, these hundreds of detentions were consistently denied by the RNA. National and international appeals for information and clarification were ignored. Detainees were hidden from inspection. The fundamental guarantee of judicial control over detentions was denied. The only official documentation available regarding any of these detentions was prepared when some of the detainees were eventually transferred to civilian custody following habeas corpus proceedings, mainly in 2005. According to at least ten relatives of the disappeared interviewed by OHCHR, when they heard about the arrests, they made inquiries with state authorities, including the RNA, the Nepal Police, APF, and Home Ministry.
Many filed habeas corpus petitions and visited various RNA barracks following clues wherever they could be found. They received no official information. One father searched continuously for his three sons, all student members of ANNISU-R, after they were arrested from public places in Kathmandu by individuals in plain clothes between August and December 2003. He immediately informed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Amnesty International, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and local non-governmental organisations after their disappearance and filed habeas corpus petitions. The detention of one of his sons, Birendra Basnet, was finally acknowledged by the RNA after 19 months of secret detention in June 2005. He was released under a Supreme Court order in December 2005. The father’s efforts to find the other two sons, Pushpa and Dhirendra Basnet, have proven fruitless to date.
Multiple witness testimony gathered by OHCHR confirms that all three sons were arrested and detained by the Bhairabnath or Yuddha Bhairab battalions. According to former detainees, officers of the NHRC and the ICRC first visited Maharajgunj in early 2004. During this period, the RNA successfully hid detainees from detection within the Maharajgunj barracks. In one instance, in spite of a notice from the Supreme Court requesting that the NHRC investigate the disappearance of one of many ANNFSU-R student leaders arrested, Krishna KC, the RNA denied the NHRC entry into the barracks on 31 May 2004. NHRC access was finally granted by the RNA on 1 July 2004, when three detainees were identified and interviewed.
OHCHR has confirmed that many others were hidden from the NHRC at this time. Dozens of those held by both battalions during this period were eventually released due to decisions of the Supreme Court in habeas corpus proceedings. A typical case was that of Krishna KC. He was arrested in September 2003 and held in secret detention for 17 months by the Bhairabnath battalion before the RNA finally acknowledged he was in their custody, falsely claiming that he had been arrested on 14 February 2005 in Gorkha. Following a third habeas corpus petition filed by his family, the Supreme Court found that the Government was unable to offer any legal grounds for continuing the detention of Krishna KC. Notwithstanding this decision, immediately upon his release on 22 September 2005 by order of the Supreme Court, Krishna KC was re-arrested on the steps of the apex court by the security forces.
The detention of many other ANNFSU-R members who, like Krishna KC, were arrested and detained by the Bhairabnath battalion, has never been acknowledged by the RNA. Among those OHCHR has concluded were alive and under control of Bhairabnath or Yuddha Bhairab battalions until at least 20 December 2003 are Gyanendra Tripathi, Kaushalya Pokharel and her brother, Arjun Pokharel, Rebakala Tiwari and her husband, Bhawanath Dhamala. In addition to students, many labourers, trade union members, intellectuals, and teachers, were also subject to arbitrary detention and torture and the deliberate denial of judicial supervision.
In some cases, former detainees were simply released, and many of these feature on the Bhairabnath battalion’s list of eventually acknowledged detentions. Some of those released attribute their survival to a combination of three factors: a decision by the RNA regarding their innocence; political and family connections; and domestic and international attention. For instance, Amnesty International issued dozens of urgent appeals on behalf of the detainees thought to have been held in the custody of the Bhairabnath battalion during this period. Many of those on whose behalf these appeals were sent were subsequently released or transferred into civilian custody. Some of these individuals, despite threats against their lives, later gave public accounts of what happened during their unacknowledged detention and torture while held in Maharajgunj barracks.
OHCHR has confirmed through independent testimony that these individuals were indeed arrested and detained by the Bhairabnath battalion. Released individuals received direct threats from the RNA upon their release, as well as the obligation imposed by Bhairabnath battalion that they report every one to four weeks at different locations to battalion members in civilian clothes. Former detainees have been told that they would be killed if they revealed any information about their detention to anyone, particularly human rights organisations. OHCHR is monitoring their ongoing security given these direct threats to their lives and holds the RNA directly responsible for any violations of their physical and psychological integrity.
Improvised Detention Facilities In Maharajgunj RNA Barracks
The Bhairabnath and Yuddha Bhairab battalion barracks in Maharajgunj occupy a large area dominated by a central palace dating from the Rana period in Nepal, now used as RNA offices. Most of the forty-nine detainees listed in Annex ‘A’ were kept by the Bhairabnath battalion in the southwest corner of this compound. The rest of the compound, located to the north and northeast of the Rana palace, was used by the members of these battalions for food storage, accommodation and training.
The Inquiry Tents
On arrival at the Maharajgunj barracks, some detainees were kept temporarily in tents located in a large area directly north of the main entrance to the barracks, under the control of the Bhairabnath battalion. This temporary accommodation was usually followed by longer-term detention in a converted garage (the ‘Garage’) or in a converted squash court (the ‘Hall’). Some detainees would later be transferred from the Garage to the Hall. There was regular movement of new and old detainees in this detention area throughout the period from September through December 2003.
All of these facilities were within fifty metres of the main street. Detainees, continuously blindfolded and handcuffed, could hear the daily sound of traffic and the shouts of bus conductors (‘kalashi’). One recalled peeking from his blindfold at the neon “Himalaya” bank sign towering above the walled barracks compound from the opposite side of the street to the west. All of the witnesses interviewed separately by OHCHR described without any inconsistencies the relative orientation and the use made of these improvised detention places. OHCHR visited the Bhairabnath barracks twice in 2005 and confirmed the location of the squash court (the ‘Hall’) as described by witnesses.
As shown in the diagram in Annex B, the Hall was a large rectangular space with an adjacent toilet and a nearby 500-litre black water tank located at that time within several metres of the Hall, but since removed. The toilet consisted of a broken urinal bowl and a single hole, both of which were located next to a small room also used by a single detainee during one period. The water tank was mounted on a concrete stand with a broken, unused tap at the front. Detainees reached into the tank with a water jug through an opening in the top in order to wash their faces.
The Garage was a rectangular space adjacent to the opposite or east end of the Hall and consisted of a high zinc roof mounted on metal poles with three brick walls, one improvised canvas wall, and a concrete floor. To the south of these three places, several tents of three different sizes were erected and used for temporary detention and inquiry. Next to these tents and to the Hall, a large brass, two-handled container was sunk into the ground and filled with filthy water. This was used for torture and was also an open urinal used by the guards at night. Detainees also consistently recall hearing the sounds of a temple in daily use located southeast of the Hall, in proximity to the inquiry tents. OHCHR confirmed the presence of a Hindu temple in this location. Below follows a more detailed description of the places where the detainees were held.
Mass Detention Area
Some detainees, both men and women, were held in an open area on a surface covered in stones and pieces of glass, with a tin roof held up by metal poles. This area appears to have been separate from the other detention areas described below (the Garage and the Hall). Neither mattresses nor bedding were provided to many of these detainees. Many were forced to sleep only in their underclothes while permanently blindfolded and handcuffed. This large area was backed by an old brick wall and divided into repeated sections of twenty to forty detainees separated by canvas dividers.
When detainees wished to use the single available toilet, some would have to walk blindfolded across a distance of fifty to seventy metres, feeling their way against a long wall but frequently bumping into or accidentally stepping upon fellow detainees. Guards tended to laugh on such occasions. Some of those kept in this area were transferred later to the places described below, without further contact with prisoners from the mass detention area. Others spent their entire detention period in this area. Five or more women were held in this area, some of whom have not been seen alive since 2003, including Nirmala Bhandari and a reported girl younger than 16 whose name has not been confirmed.
The Garage was divided into separate sections for male and female detainees by a vertically suspended heavy canvas stretched out across the length of the Garage. Approximately 30 male detainees slept with their heads at the canvas, making it easy to overhear conversations on either side and to communicate from time to time. These detainees exited the Garage through a door in the southwest corner and walked along the outer length of the Hall, blindfolded, in order to use the shared single toilet adjacent to the Hall. It was during this trip to the toilet that detainees from both the Hall and the Garage, as well as other detainees from nearby tents, could have chance encounters and exchange information quickly through whispers.
Some of the detainees held in the Garage were transferred to the Hall in early December 2003, to be removed days later as part of a large group of detainees who remain on the current list of unresolved disappearance cases. Three other former detainees in the Garage, who were seen in custody at Maharajgunj after December 2003, probably died while in custody due to torture (see below). Of eight women who shared one side of the Garage at this time, only four have been seen alive after December 2003. Those who remain disappeared are Kaushalya Pokhrel, Rebkala Tiwari, Durga Bisenke and Renuka Dulal.
Witness testimony regarding the period from September to December 2003 consistently refers to a high, rectangular building, with red brick exterior, white interior walls in one single room with a narrow balcony at one end, ventilation windows near a high roof on all sides, and a single narrow exit at one end leading to an outer narrow passageway. The passageway had a staircase to the balcony at one end and an exit at the other end, through which access to the toilet was possible. The adjacent toilet could hold only one person at a time, for which there were regular and long queues. In 2005, OHCHR confirmed the existence of this squash court inside Maharajgunj army camp. According to consistent testimony, from September to mid-December 2003, approximately 70 detainees were being kept in the Hall.
In order to accommodate these numbers and to minimize the chances of communication, detainees were placed with their head and feet in alternating directions. From late November to mid-December 2003, four key detainees occupied the only cots (camp beds) used in the Hall, positioned in the four corners of the Hall: Krishna KC and Himal Sharma, the principal ANNISU-R student leaders, and Bhim Giri and Nischal Nakarmi, students involved in other aspects of CPN-M activity. Their position on cots allowed guards to watch them more closely but also gave these individuals a view, when they risked peeking beneath their blindfolds, of all detainees who came and went. Other detainees also could peek from beneath their blindfolds with relative ease, but at risk of beatings.
The Hall was used for detainees considered by the RNA to be influential members of the CPN-M. They were guarded around the clock by two to four guards on four-hour rotations positioned on an upper balcony of the kind originally designed for the viewing of squash games. At a later stage, in early 2004, a camera was installed to monitor the detainees more closely.
Also located in the Hall, and uniformly described as suffering severe torture, were subordinates of these captured Maoist leaders, as well as intellectuals and labourers who supported the CPN-M in varying ways, members of Maoist-affiliated trade unions, and persons with no apparent involvement with the CPN-M. At least 40 individuals were removed from the Hall in late December 2003, including some individuals transferred several days earlier from the Garage. Those remaining in the Hall after this date recall that they each then had a significantly expanded area to occupy. Over the ensuing weeks, most of those formerly located in the Garage had been transported to the Hall.
Witnesses describe several occasions between approximately February and April 2004 in which they were marched from the Hall and the Garage to what is described as a ‘bunker’, a fifteen or twenty-minute walk from the main detention area. The transfer took place each time at about 3am and detainees were kept there often for an entire day, after which they were returned to the Hall. Orders to remain absolutely silent were strictly enforced with severe beatings. Handcuffs and blindfolds were tightened. Food was scarce. The Bunker area was described as a low depression in the ground. There were speculations that this place was used to hide detainees during visits by the ICRC and later on by the NHRC. Added to this speculation was the fact that the detainees were made to clean up the Hall and take all their belongings when being transferred to this Bunker.
High Security Tents
By April 2004, detainees in the Hall had been moved to tents of varying sizes in a high security area within Maharajgunj at the back of the Yuddha Bhairab facilities, referred to by some former detainees as the ‘PTS’ area due to its proximity to the Parachute Training School. The witnesses describe a large grassy area with a growth of banana trees boxed in by a traditional large white building of Rana architecture. In 2005, OHCHR visited Maharajgunj and confirmed an area fitting this description. In this area, control over movement and communication was strictly enforced while in other respects the treatment improved, especially with more regular medical care. Some speculated that this new detention area was intended to more permanently hide the detainees from visits from outsiders, including the ICRC and the NHRC.
Sivapuri Army Camp (under the command of the Yuddha Bhairab battalion)
In mid-January 2005, approximately 18 detainees were loaded in a truck and taken from the Maharajgunj high security tents to an army camp in Sivapuri forest under the command of the Yuddha Bhairab battalion. Some individuals were left behind, including Kiran Rayamaji, who was extremely ill with an infected eye. He remains disappeared. The others journeyed to a relatively high altitude in Sivapuri forest to a residential compound with a central courtyard and adjoining rooms. This was their last collective detention place before they were eventually transferred to official facilities in acknowledged detention.
(The report continues in next blog)