South Asia

Nepal’s Police Custodial Deaths: Patterns of Negligence, Alleged Abuse and Impunity

While activists call for much-needed reforms, a long list of custodial deaths in Nepal points to torture, abuse and a lack of understanding of mental health and drug addiction issues.

In the early hours of the morning on June 10, Shambhu Sada, a 23-year-old Nepali truck driver from Sabaila Municipality, died in police custody in Dhanusha District. Sada had turned himself in to the police two weeks earlier after he hit and killed a local woman, Sumindra Devi Sah, in a traffic accident.

The police reported Sada’s death as a suicide, saying he hanged himself in the jail’s bathroom. However, after  hearing the tragic news, members of Sada’s community and family – who are Dalits belonging to the Musahar caste – refused to accept the police version of events. Some believe that the police murdered Sada, while others think they drove him to suicide through physical and emotional torture. Protesters have been demanding justice for his death, while the police are urging patience until Sada’s post-mortem results arrive.

“If it is found that the death was a suicide then how are the police responsible?” says Koshhari Niraula, the Chief District Officer for Dhanusha.

Certainly, not all deaths in police custody are due to police abuse, but Human Rights Watch notes that throughout the world, custodial deaths are often linked to torture and police impunity. The period between arrest and trial is especially dangerous for detainees because police may use mental or physical torture against them in order to extract confessions.

Also read: In Nepal, Dispute Over Suicide – or Murder – of Girl Turns Spotlight on Police Practice

In Nepal, the mainstream media often reports on individual custodial deaths without identifying larger patterns. We scoured local, district-level and national media reports over the past five years – from June 2015 to June 2020 – and identified 18 custodial deaths in Nepal.  The data show that, proportional to population, Nepal currently has a higher rate of custodial deaths than India did for the period 2010-2015, when it was heavily criticised by Human Rights Watch. The detainees in Nepal were accused of a variety of crimes, running the gamut from mobile phone theft to rape, and 12 of the 18 belonged to Dalit, Madhesi, or Janajati/Adivasi communities.

The cases – some of which went unreported by major Nepali newspapers and even rights organisations – also reveal patterns like a lack of facilities for detainees suffering mental health problems, poor treatment of minors, irregularities in some cases, and deficiencies in investigating suspicious cases. The data are listed in a table at the end of the article. It should be noted that the data are not necessarily complete – for example, we do not know about cases that were never reported in the media.

In 13 of the cases, police reported suicide as the cause of death.  Like Shambhu Sada’s case, most were committed by hanging in the bathroom. Often, the police said they were taken by surprise and the detainee was not under special monitoring to protect them from dying by suicide.

Several detainees seemed to suffer from long-term mental health and/or substance addiction problems which, as the National Human Rights Commission notes, the police are poorly equipped to deal with.

In August 2017, an unnamed man – simply referred to as “Gangate” (“dumb guy”) in reports – died in police custody in Dang, after reportedly spending the whole night beating his head against his cell wall.  Apparently, police were not aware of Gangate’s condition until it was too late. This was according to the final police report; initially, they posted a statement on Facebook that Gangate was never in custody and his corpse was found on the road.

In June 2015, 17-year-old Tejas Darai from Chitwan died shortly after being rushed to hospital from police custody, during the sixth time that he was apprehended for drug-related offenses.

Darai is one among three detainees under the age of 18 who have died in police custody over the past five years. In at least two of the cases, the police reportedly kept minors in the same area as adult detainees, which is against official guidelines. In addition, other police behaviour may have unduly contributed to the minors’ mental stress.

For example, Priyanka Yadav was 16 when she reportedly died by suicide in police custody in Siraha District in October 2017 after being accused of murdering her younger brother. The police held a press meet before she died, in which they paraded Yadav and her co-accused in front of reporters and photographers, claiming that the duo had killed the boy after he became aware of their alleged sexual relationship. A report by THRD Alliance argued that the police had no authority to make public the identity of a minor, or to present minors as criminals before a final verdict had been presented by the court, suggesting this may have been a contributing factor in her suicide.

Among the 13 custodial suicides over the past five years, the families of the deceased disputed the cause of death in at least five cases. In several other cases, the deceased detainee reportedly bore signs of torture or other physical abuse.

It is well known that torture was common under Nepal’s monarchy and during the civil war from 1996-2006. However, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) reports that torture in detention  is still a problem, despite its criminalisation in the 2018 Criminal Code. Yet investigations into custodial deaths rarely go anywhere. Suicide cases are usually deemed unsuspicious and not investigated, unless there is significant pressure from the family. Often, no post-mortem is conducted.

First Information Reports (FIRs) – the first step in an investigation – are only rarely registered for suspicious custodial deaths. We were unable to find a single case where criminal charges were brought against a police officer for a custodial death.

Officers accused of negligence or wrongdoing are sometimes given “departmental action”, usually amounting to a transfer to a new post somewhere else in the country. This is not necessarily a punishment.

For example, after Kiran Karkidholi, a 15-year-old Dalit boy, reportedly died by suicide in custody in Jhapa District in April 2019, the family accused the police of torture. The Deputy Superintendent of Police who oversaw the detainee – who was politically well-connected, according to  the Kathmandu Post – was transferred to another district.  According to police records, he received a promotion  in May 2020, just a year after his involvement in the case.

The police sometimes form ad-hoc committees of senior officers and/or judicial personnel to investigate suspicious deaths that garner widespread outrage. However, such committees rarely bring new information to light. Instead, they usually conclude by dispensing compensation to the deceased’s family. For example, after the custodial death of Samir Ghising, a suspected thief in Chitwan in May 2019, an investigation committee gave Ghising’s family Rs 5 lakh. Similarly, an ad-hoc committee offered Rs 10 lakh to the family of Ram Manohar Yadav, a young Madhesi activist, who died after being arrested at a protest in August 2018 in Banke District – an offer the family rejected.

The NHRC has a constitutional role in investigating and preventing police abuses. The NHRC is currently monitoring Sada’s case in Dhanusha, yet in the past, NHRC monitoring reports have often gone unpublished.

The police are supposed to inform the NHRC of any custodial death – no matter if it is “suspicious” or not – within 24 hours, according to NHRC’s official guidelines. However, Mohna Ansari, one of the NHRC’s members, says the police often fail to inform the NHRC, which does not take a proactive role in seeking new cases.

“Sometimes, they inform us, but it is not done on a regular basis,” Ansari says.

The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) also has a role in police oversight. Last week, at the urging of Attorney General Agni Prasad Kharel, the police in Dhanusa finally filed an FIR in Shambhu Sada’s case – a step that was welcomed by the family.

Also read: Sanjiv Bhatt Case: In 16 Years, Gujarat Saw 180 Custodial Deaths – and Zero Convictions

However, the OAG is not always proactive. For example, it conducts annual, UN-sponsored field inspections at detention centers and prisons throughout the country. Yet its reports over the past five years have not once mentioned deaths in police custody, instead focusing on other apolitical issues like bed-bugs, sub-standard rice, and the lack of an “inspiring atmosphere” to rehabilitate inmates.

Praveen Kumar Yadav, a Kathmandu-based human rights activist at the Terai Human Rights Defenders Alliance, says a variety of reforms are needed, including better training and facilities for handling detainees with mental health and drug addiction issues. People like “Gangate” or Tejas Darai could benefit from mental health or addiction services rather than police detention. The fact that most suicides in custody take place in bathrooms suggests that securing these areas should also be a priority, along with suicide watch for distressed detainees.

A 2017 NHRC report noted that greater CCTV usage in detention areas could lead to greater police accountability. CCTV cameras are proliferating rapidly across public places in Nepal,  purportedly to help solve crimes, and the police are also beginning to install them in detention centres, though many are still lacking.

Some activists also call for making investigations legally mandatory for all custodial deaths – as is the case in India.

“Every case of custodial death has to be investigated,” says advocate Dinesh Tripathi. “It should not be investigated by police officers from the same district, but instead by some higher officials, and in some cases a judicial inquiry should also be conducted. If the same police who are accused of the crime investigate themselves, there is a conflict of interest.”

Tripathi says he is considering filing a public interest litigation with the Supreme Court in order to establish mandatory guidelines for investigating custodial deaths.

Activists also say Nepal’s post-mortem examination process is in need of reform. Nepali doctors who conduct the examinations are often untrained and succumb to police pressure to distort the facts. A law to ensure qualified, independent autopsies for custodial deaths could help, some say.

Also read: Poor Medical Care for Prisoners Explains Why Number of Custodial Deaths Is Only Rising

While such proposals could bring about much-needed positive change, no single policy solution is likely to be a silver bullet for solving the problem of custodial deaths. A Human Rights Watch report states that in India, “despite strict guidelines, the authorities routinely fail to conduct rigorous investigations and prosecute police officials implicated in torture and ill-treatment of arrested persons”.

Throughout the world, police forces often maintain a culture of protecting their own, even when they are accused of grave injustices. This is evident in Nepal and South Asia as much as it is in the United States, where police officers have been rallying to prevent reforms that could prevent abuse amid the Black Lives Matter movement.

Back in Dhanusha district, outrage and protests over Sambhu Sada’s death eventually led to some governmental actions. In addition to the filing of the FIR, the provincial government has committed to give Sada’s family Rs 5 lakh as relief.  However, no officers have been suspended or charged, despite accusations that they were blackmailing Sada in custody.

Table: Deaths in Police Custody in Nepal, June 2015-June 2020*

SN Date Name Caste group Age Location Comments LINKS
1 June 26, 2015 Tejas Darai Janajati/ Adivasi 17 Chitwan Unclear; detainee fell unconcious and died Echitwan Post, Kalika FM,
2 May 2016 Tik Bahadur Rai Janajati/ Adivasi 39 Kathmandu Detainee was released from custody bearing serious injuries, died within 24 hours Kantipur, Pahilo Post, Nepal Aaja
3 May 14, 2016 Sher Lama Janajati/ Adivasi ? Bardiya Police reported suicide Nagarik, Nepal Live
4 May 12, 2017 Bhupendra Giri Brahmin/ Chhetri 29 Pyuthan Police reported suicide; family claimed foul play Online Khabar, Thaha Khabar, Nagarik
5 August 27, 2017 Sridhan Biswakarma Dalit 33 Sunsari Police reported suicide Thaha Khabar, Blast Khabar, Rato Pati
6 August 29, 2017 “Gangate” (crazy guy; name not known) ? ? Dang Police initially reported they found the dead body; later said he died in custody due to self-inflicted injuries Tulsipur Online, Hamra Kura
7 October 29, 2017 Priyanka Yadav Madhesi 16 Siraha Police reported suicide; rights groups decried mistreatment of minor in custody Kantipur, THRD Alliance, News 24
8 January 8, 2018 Hirnarayan Yadav Madhesi 52 Jhapa Police reported suicide; family claimed foul play Naya Patrika, Baahra Khari
9 April 10, 2018 Kanar Chaudhary Janajati/ Adivasi 55 Nawalparasi Police reported suicide INSEC
10 April 12, 2018 Premlal Chaudhary Janajati/ Adivasi Kathmandu Police reported suicide Seto Pati, Annapurna Post
11 August 31, 2018 Ram Manohar Yadav Madhesi 30 Banke Police culpability asserted, widespread protests Nagarik, Seto Pati, THRD Alliance, Hulaki News, Rato Pati
12 March 1, 2019 Sandip Shah Indian 30 Kaski Police reported suicide News 24, Gandak News, Eadarsha
13 April 19, 2019 Kiran Karkidholi Dalit 15 Jhapa Police reported suicide; family claimed foul play Rato Pati, Blast Khabar, Kathmandu Post, Kathmandu Post, Kathmandu Post, INSEC
14 May 9, 2019 Samir Ghising Janajati/ Adivasi ? Chitwan Police reported suicide; family claimed foul play Kantipur, Nagarik, Online Khabar
15 November 17 2019 Ram Kandel Brahmin/ Chhetri 28 Chitwan Police reported he “fell of a cliff while running away,” suspected torture Online Khabar, Baahra Khari, Ichchha Khabar
16 November 23 2019 Ganesh Pali ? 21 Doti Police reported suicide; family claimed foul play Seto Pati, Rato Pati, Himalayan Times
17 April 1, 2020 Name not reported (rape-related case) ? 38 Kapilvastu Police reported suicide News 24, Nagarik
18 June 10, 2020 Sambhu Sada Dalit 23 Dhanusha Police reported suicide; family claims foul play Online Khabar, Kathmandu Post

*Deaths in alleged “fake encounters,” in which it is uncertain whether the deceased was or was not apprehended by the police before dying, are not included here.

Peter Gill is a Kathmandu-based journalist who tweets at @pitaarji. Abha Lal is recent anthropology graduate affiliated with Martin Chautari. She is working as Desk Editor at The Record and tweets at @AbhaLal2.

This report was published in partnership between The Record and The Wire.