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Justice for victims of Nepal's civil war slips away
Birendranagar, Nepal (AFP) Feb 9, 2017

Nepal extends deadline for war crimes investigations
Kathmandu (AFP) Feb 9, 2017 - Nepal on Thursday extended the mandates for two commissions tasked with probing crimes committed during the bloody civil war, hours before a deadline was due to lapse without a single case being investigated.

The commissions had been given two years to look into the murders, rapes and forced disappearances perpetrated by government forces and Maoist rebels during the decade-long conflict, which ended in 2006.

Their mandates were to expire at midnight Thursday, leaving thousands of victims in limbo, but in an eleventh-hour decision Kathmandu agreed to extend the investigation period.

"The term of the two commissions have been extended by a year," Information Minister Surendra Kumar Karki told AFP following a cabinet meeting.

Critics fear the extension is insufficient to hear the tens of thousands of complaints filed by victims seeking justice and answers about the fate of their loved ones.

"We don't think a year is enough to investigate the 58,000 petitions we received," Surya Gurung, the head of the commission into war-time abuses, told AFP in a recent interview.

Not a single case was investigated during the two-year mandate, with critics blaming a lack of funds and political inertia.

The government was criticised for not granting the commissions the legal powers afforded under international law to prosecute war crimes, or repealing a provision granting amnesty to perpetrators.

A narrow legal window for reporting rape in Nepal also effectively bars the prosecution of sexual crimes perpetrated during the civil war.

Rights groups say these limitations protect war-era figures still occupying positions in military and political ranks, and stifle investigations.

"An extension alone is not enough. Legal changes are needed for us to truly work and fulfil our objectives," said Lokendra Mallick, the chairman of the commission into war-time disappearances.

More than 17,000 people were killed, 1,300 disappeared and thousands displaced during the civil war, which ended with a peace deal between Maoist insurgents and government forces.

The pact also heralded the end of the Hindu monarchy, which fell two years later as the former rebels swept to victory in Nepal's first post-war national elections.

Shanti Dhakal's husband disappeared without a trace nearly two decades ago at the height of Nepal's brutal Maoist insurgency, presumed murdered by police for having links to the rebels.

Dhakal was among 60,000 victims who registered a complaint with two commissions set up in 2015 with a two-year mandate to investigate the murders, rapes and forced disappearances perpetrated by both sides.

On Thursday that mandate will expire before a single case has been investigated, leaving her no closer to learning the fate of her husband.

"They didn't give us his clothes or the watch and rings he wore. If they had given us even his shoes, I could have said, 'My husband is dead'," Dhakal told AFP at the school in the midwestern town of Birendranagar, where she teaches.

"There was no proof, I haven't even performed the last rites."

More than 17,000 people were killed, 1,300 disappeared and thousands displaced during the decade-long civil war between Maoists and government forces that ended in 2006.

The commissions have been hamstrung by a lack of funds and government inertia, activists say, suggesting that authorities have been reluctant to pursue perpetrators as many still fill Nepal's military and political ranks.

Surya Gurung, who heads one of the commissions, said repeated assurances from the government that adequate support would be provided had not translated into concrete action.

"We are not satisfied with the way the government has worked with us these past two years," Gurung told AFP.

"They are a bit scared of this commission. They don't know what this commission can do, will they be implicated."

- Broken promises -

Calls to give the commissions teeth by granting them legal powers to prosecute war crimes have fallen on deaf ears, activists say.

The United Nations has refused to support the commissions until the government ensures they are brought in line with international law.

Legislation criminalising torture has not been adopted, and the government has dithered in revoking a provision granting amnesty to alleged perpetrators, despite the Supreme Court shooting it down.

Rights groups have been scathing, warning that failure to bolster the commissions' legal clout will "squander the hope that wartime victims have placed in this process", Amnesty International's Biraj Patnaik said in a statement.

The peace deal struck between Maoist and government forces to end the war paved the way for two commissions -- one investigating the broader crimes committed during the insurgency and a second to scrutinise the disappearances.

They were meant to help heal the deep divides left by the brutal war, but the impoverished Himalayan country has since shuffled through nine governments as political infighting has overshadowed reconciliation.

Despite the political roadblocks, however, Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the commissions had "succeeded in accumulating a body of evidence of wartime atrocities that can lead to justice, accountability and reparations for survivors".

"It is time for Nepal's political parties to prove their commitment to justice and truth," he added.

It is expected the commissions will be extended by another year when Nepal's cabinet meets on Thursday, but the news brings little solace to victims like Dhakal whose faith in the process has been dashed.

"They keep reopening our wounds again and again, torturing us," the teacher said.

"At least, if in two years, they had given some proof that our loved ones have disappeared, they would be dead in our dreams. Even now he is alive in my dreams."

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