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Rights Groups Cite Pattern Of Abuse by Nepal's Army

U.S. Gave $22 Million to Forces Trying to Contain Maoists

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page A25

KATMANDU, Nepal -- His captors said it was time to "swim in cold weather," Basu Sigdel recalled.

Blindfolded and stripped to his undershorts, the 40-year-old lawyer struggled to breathe as strong-armed men repeatedly plunged his head into a water-filled steel drum, Sigdel said in an interview. They demanded to know the whereabouts of several Maoist rebels, accusing him of lying when he said he didn't know.

Basu Sigdel, a 40-year-old lawyer, said he was abused by Nepali forces during his 50-day detention last winter. (John Lancaster -- The Washington Post)

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"It was so long that I almost choked, and I felt that I might die," Sigdel said, describing the early morning interrogation on the fourth day of his 50-day unofficial detention by Nepal's security forces last winter. "I could feel foam coming out of my mouth. Most probably the water got into my lungs."

Sigdel's ordeal highlights what human rights monitors call a pattern of abuses by government security forces, who have received roughly $22 million in U.S. military aid over the last several years. The forces are struggling to contain a Maoist insurgency that began in 1996 and recently has spread to virtually every corner of this picturesque Himalayan kingdom.

In a report last month, New York-based Human Rights Watch accused both the Maoist rebels and government forces of "summary executions, torture, arbitrary arrests and abductions, and persecution based on political associations." Of particular concern, the report said, was the growing phenomenon of "enforced disappearances," in which rebels or people suspected of helping them -- a loose category that includes lawyers who argued their cases in court -- were secretly taken into custody by the army or police and sometimes tortured or killed.

One disappearance that has received widespread attention involves a 15-year-old girl, Maina Sunuwar, who allegedly was murdered by soldiers in the Kavre district earlier this year. The incident occurred after the girl's mother claimed in statements to journalists and human rights workers to have witnessed an extrajudicial killing.

"There has been a massive increase in the number of disappearances" since the breakdown of a cease-fire agreement between the rebels and the government in August 2003, said Achyut Acharya of the National Human Rights Commission in Nepal, which has recorded 1,260 cases of disappearance involving security forces since 2000. "Most of the disappeared cases are in detention centers controlled by the army."

Brig. Gen. Dipak Gurung, chief spokesman for the Royal Nepal Army, said he would "not rule out the fact that some human rights violations might have taken place," and he acknowledged that the army sometimes held people without disclosing their whereabouts.

He said such methods were necessary to avoid compromising investigations and that torture and other forms of abuse were contrary to army policy. Gurung noted that in 2002, the army established a special "human rights cell" to investigate claims of abuses and had sometimes prosecuted soldiers accused of particular crimes.

Gurung also asserted that claims of abuses should be treated with skepticism because they often were based on information from "Maoists and Maoist sympathizers."

The army has no monopoly on mistreatment of civilians. According to human rights groups, the Maoists have grown increasingly brutal in their methods, which include cutting out the tongues of suspected informants and burning them alive.

Once part of Nepal's political mainstream, the Maoists took their movement underground in 1996 and launched what they call a "people's war" against the constitutional monarchy now run by King Gyanendra. His family has dominated this impoverished and isolated country of about 25 million people for more than two centuries. Nepal has not had a functioning parliament since 2002, and Gyanendra has assumed an increasingly autocratic role, political analysts say.

So far, human rights monitors say, about 10,000 people, many of them noncombatants, have died in the conflict.

Over the last two years, the Maoists have made steady gains and now roam freely throughout most of Nepal's 75 administrative districts, according to Western diplomats. Maoist attacks on police outposts have proved so effective that the government has closed roughly 80 percent of them.

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