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  Of disappearances, and forensic science  


On October 8, 2003, a complaint was lodged at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Nepal regarding the disappearance of five young men —Sanjiv Labh, Durgesh Labh, Jitendra Jha, Pramod Narayan Mandal, and Shailendra Yadav. They were allegedly killed by state security forces in Dhanusha during the “conflict.”

Earlier this year, on September 19, four bodies were exhumed from the banks of the Kamala River in Godar of Dhanusha by a forensic team that had international and local experts from the National Forensic Science Laboratory (NAFOL), Forensics Medicine Department of the Institute of Medicine (FMD, IOM), Department of Archeology (DOA), forensic lab of Nepal Police, and NHRC.

The exhumed bodies are believed to be of four of the five youths disappeared in Dhanusha. However, this case is incomplete in a sense that one of the bodies is yet to be unearthed.

“At present, the process of determining the identities of the recovered bodies is underway at NAFOL, which runs under the Ministry of Science and Technology and FMD, IOM,” informs Jiwan Prasad Rijal of NAFOL.

NHRC’s preliminary report on the particular case states, ‘‘A few bullets suspected to have connection with the remains have also been found during the exhumation.”

Dhanusha is a recent example of how forensic science has helped shed light on the tragic and unlawful killings which occurred as a consequence of the country’s internal war. In this case, there remain a number of gross human rights violation cases that the state is accountable for. On the other hand, similar “crimes against humanity” incidents, which the non-state agencies have to address, struggle to see the light of day.

As the nation strives to settle in the post-conflict era, forensics is to play a key role. A multi-disciplinary branch of medicine, forensic science is indispensable for the proper recovery, handling, and identification of human remains. The discipline includes pathology, anthropology, archeology, fingerprinting, odontology (forensic dentistry), and genetics (forensic DNA analysis).

“These scientific steps are essential in determining what happened to missing persons and in correctly identifying their remains,” informs Dr Mercedes Salado Puerto, who has worked as a forensic anthropologist in over 40 countries.

SSP (Senior Superintendent of Police) Janak Bahadur Singh of the Central Police Forensic Science Laboratory (CPSL) seconds the idea, “Forensics helps narrow down any crime investigations.” Nepal Police’s forensic department, which previously consisted of only a fingerprint and photography unit, was upgraded to a full-fledged lab in 1995.

The statistics

Most disappearance cases occurred in 2003/4, a year when Nepal witnessed intensified struggle, and statistically topped the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances list of countries. The recent data by Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction lists 1,327 enforced disappearances during the decade-long insurgency, which took 16,278 lives.

Disappearances thus work out to about 108 per annum during the conflict years, or nine per month.

According to a 2008 study of missing people by the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), 90% are males, of which 81% are married. Additionally, 71% of the men were between 18 and 35 years, and were sole breadwinners of their families. The study conducted over four months with 86 families, reports that a family with a missing person faces several difficulties, from economic hardship to psychological and psychosocial traumas.

Earlier this year, The Week also reported the aftermath of how a 71-year-old Ir Bahadur Tamang of Belhara, Dhankuta, waits for his son to return home and does not believe what the villagers have to say about his son’s death. “Without his body, how can we trust what others say?” said Tamang.

And like him, most such families are reluctant to believe that their loved ones are dead until their bodies are recovered, as a 2009 ICRC report states.

But even in the post-CPA political climate, regular reports of persons being abducted by armed groups or by Maoists, whose whereabouts are unknown, still surface. And although the number of cases don’t match those of the conflict period, 132 civilians have reportedly gone missing in 2007, 37 in 2008, and 24 in 2009, as documented by NHRC.

Narendra Shrestha/ICRC

On the record

A clause in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed by the state and CPN (Maoists) on November 2006, states and agrees to make public the fate of the disappeared persons within 60 days. The accord also commits to set up a high-level Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)to probe those involved in serious violation of human rights and crime against humanity. Four years since the CPA, the clause, among many pending proceses, is still a void in enactment.

Similar is the fate of the Commission of Inquiry of Disappearance. In 2007, the Supreme Court (SC) ordered the government to establish a high level commission of inquiry on disappearances in compliance with international criteria. Among its responsibilities were to investigate, which also involves exhumations and prosecution of those responsible for disappearances.

The Commission is also responsible for providing compensation and relief to the victims and their families. To date, compensation for missing members has been given to 1,200 families to the amount of Rs 100,000 per family, according to Shankar Pathak, a senior official at the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction.

But even in the post-CPA political climate, regular reports of persons being abducted by armed groups or by Maoists, whose whereabouts are unknown, still surface. And although the number of cases don’t match those of the conflict period, 132 civilians have reportedly gone missing in 2007, 37 in 2008, and 24 in 2009, as documented by NHRC. The figures portray the grim reality of how, despite the commitments, political realities have hindered the progress, and in one case, even denied justice.

Only one enforced disappearance—that of 15-year-old Maina Sunar—has been registered for legal battle, informs Mandira Sharma of Advocacy Forum, Nepal. “Sunar’s body was identified after forensic exhumation and investigation. Apart from that, a bullet was found lodged inside her body,” informs Sharma. The then Royal Nepal Army had taken Sunar in captivity in 2004.

And the case has become a mere controversy at large.

Sharma adds, “Despite the SC’s orders, the state agencies are reluctant for further investigations and the consequent legal process. There are some 100 such disappearance cases that have been registered in various police stations.”

Commenting on the state’s role, Laure Schneeberger, ICRC deputy head in Nepal, says, “Under international humanitarian laws, the authorities bear primary responsibility for accounting for missing persons, ensuring proper recovery and dignified handling of human remains.”

‘‘In Argentina, 90% of the forensic exhumation was carried out to identify conflict victims. And of the 1,000 disappearance cases, over a hundred (that also involves mass burial sites) have been opened for prosecution backed up by the forensic evidences,” forensic expert Mercedes Salado Puerto told The Week. “Mainly, when it comes to old exhumation cases, witnesses’ memory alone isn’t sufficient. And this is where forensic evidences and investigation come of help.”

Argentina’s own experience with an internal war has given it a reservoir of technical experience in the field from which Nepal can draw help.

Limited resources

NHRC member (commissioner) Gauri Pradhan informs that the Commission has started drawing support from forensic investigations as these add credibility to such cases.

“After the results are established, the families have the right to take the perpetrators to court. But due to the state’s weakness, justice for the families and deceased has been denied,” he told The Week.

When it comes to human resources crunch, Dr Hans Peter Hougen points out that Nepal does not have a curriculum meeting the full range of forensic science demands. Hougen,a forensic pathologist, is affiliated with German Development Service (DED) and NHRC for the past 11 months.

He observes, “As far as a laboratory analysis is concerned, Nepal does not have forensic anthropologists and forensic archeologists.”

“For some 3,600 crime investigation cases per year, the Police forensic lab has strength of 70 to 75,” informs SP Prabhakar Shah of the forensic department. “Some of our forensic units like toxicology, bio and serology are operating on outdated equipments, which limit our efficiency. For instance, our toxicology unit can only test 30 to 40 kinds of poisons, while the varieties have proliferated in the market.”

SSP Singh of the police lab informs that the department is lobbying so that it gets updated equipments but “things aren’t working out.”

Commenting on NAFOL, special scientist Jiwan Prasad Rijal says that the lab has been gradually improving its infrastructure. It recently widened its working space, and in 2005 introduced Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) profiling test through blood sample analysis. DNA testing is a scientific tool for human identification from body fluid stains – blood, saliva, sperm – tissues, bones, and other biological evidence found at the crime scene or on the victim.

To date, only blood sample analysis method had been used to identify bodies. But with the Dhanusha case, NAFOL will try its hand at DNA profiling through bone sample analysis as well, says Rijal who has been working in the lab for the past 25 years. He adds that the lab has also requested the authorities concerned to send the samples to international labs so that there will be a countercheck to test how accurate the lab’s results come out.

The scientist informs that the state does not have a set of guidelines or acts for proper forensic procedure. “We do follow lab methodology and technicalities. But the state should outline acts so that there is a legal procedure when it comes to logistics. This way, the procedure will be more trustworthy,” he points out. Apart from the technicalities, he points out that frequent switching of the governing bodies of the lab has hampered its efficiency.

Both Rijal and NHRC’s Pradhan inform that efforts are being made to enhance the skills of the present workforce and simultaneously update the technology. Pradhan adds that along with local experts, NHRC staffs are being sent for trainings and workshops conducted by a few INGOs. But in the present context, investigations face major hurdles due to budget constraints, limited human resources and insufficient physical facilities.

Forensics can contribute to the building of a greater state capacity. It is not only applicable to the present context but also has a broader relevance, such as in the case of identifying natural disaster victims. It has proved to be particularly valuable in dealing with the aftermath of earthquake situations around the world, and could be directly relevant to Nepal, as the country is an earthquake-prone zone.

As for now, the humanitarian and legal significance of forensic investigations is a matter that the state cannot shy away from.

Earlier this month, 15 forensic experts from NAFOL, FMD, IOM, DOA, forensic lab of Nepal Police, and NHRC participated in a joint training conducted by ICRC and the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction with the technical support from an Argentine forensics anthropology team.

Published on 2010-12-24 09:10:27
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Of Disappearances, And Forensic Science
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We hardly hear about news on forensic science in Nepal. And to be honest this is the first article that i have read on forensic science of Nepal. Every now and then we hear about people missing and found murdered, but never have we heard about how s/he was killed and who the culprit was. Although there are many students studying medical in Nepal but only few are interested in Forensic. It is high time that Nepal government focus on the works of NAFOL, FMD, IOM, DOA.

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