‘It is public knowledge that many people have been killed or tortured’
Tom Ogg met Award-winning Nepalese lawyer and human rights campaigner Mandira Sharma.
IT often feels that not a week goes by without the Human Rights Act appearing in the UK news.
It seems there is always some politician or media commentator loudly campaigning to have it watered down or scrapped entirely.
Thankfully, there are many more people who enthusiastically support the Act – and few are more alive to the dangers of life without human rights
than Mandira Sharma.
‘I think people sometimes forget the kind of suffering and sacrifice that our predecessors made for us to be in this situation,’ says the Nepal-born lawyer
and human rights campaigner. ‘I hear
the kind of debates that are going on about the Human Rights Act and I do feel that the UK takes a lot of things for granted. There are countries where you could be killed simply for having the dream to do a basic professional job. To become a lawyer, a person would have
to put their life at risk.’
Born and raised in the remote Nepalese village of Baglung, Mandira became the first lawyer in her region and has been celebrated around the world for her commitment to tackling human rights abuses. In 2001, she founded the Advocacy Forum, with the aim of seeking justice for the many victims of abuse during Nepal’s decade-long civil war (1996-2006). Over the ensuing years, the organisation has documented more than 8,000 cases of disappearances, torture and extra-judicial killings, while providing legal assistance for thousands of survivors.
Sadly, as a result of this work, Mandira has also been subjected to persecution, smear campaigns and death threats in her home country, and since 2014 she has been living in enforced exile in the UK.
‘One of the biggest challenges in Nepal is impunity for those who commit human rights violations, with people in power considered above the law,’ she says. ‘The Advocacy Forum has investigated a lot of cases where people were severely tortured or sexually abused or murdered after being taken into custody. We have publicly named the alleged propagators, which is the main reason why I have been targeted. Otherwise they wouldn’t be bothered because it is public knowledge that many people have been killed or tortured. But no one had ever before named those responsible. No one had said: “These are the people who are doing it”.’
As Mandira says, when she and her Advocacy Forum colleges take up a case, they actively seek to generate as much publicity as possible.
‘We work with the media and make sure that the case is widely discussed. It ensures that other international human rights organisations will start asking the government to take action.’
Due to the threats that Mandira has received over the years, she has had to flee Nepal on several occasions.
‘There was a coup in 2005 and I was told I was on a list of people being targeted by the Nepalese army, so I was quickly asked to leave the country,’ she says. ‘On several occasions, I have had to leave Nepal to defuse the pressures and the threats.’
It was a series of high-profile successes for the Advocacy Forum in 2014 – including the arrest of a serving Nepalese army colonel – that led to an increase in pressure and persecution against Mandira from the authorities.
‘The government of Nepal reacted very strongly against the arrest,’ says Mandira. ‘I was publicly named as a traitor. Some of us were called “the
enemy of the nation”, which was a term the Maoist party [Communist Party of Nepal] used in the past during the civil war. It was very common for them to assassinate those they considered enemies during the conflict. They would accuse you of being an enemy and then they’d kill you or break your legs or chop something off. So I was adviced that I should leave the country.’
Despite her exile in the UK, Mandira continues to work on the many human rights cases that have so angered the Nepalese establishment. Among the most harrowing is that of a 15-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered by the Nepalese military in 2004.
‘The military picked her up from her own home,’ says Mandira. ‘The reason why was because the girl’s mother was a witness for an execution killing in the village, and she had spoken to the media and spoken to us, and so to silence her the military picked up her daughter. They then denied they had done it, so it seemed as if the girl had just disappeared.
‘We were aware of this case from the very first day and so we started to look for the girl. It took us several years, but in 2007, we were able to establish that she had been tortured to death and then buried in one of the army barracks.’
The Advocacy Forum mounted a public campaign centring on the case that eventually resulted in the involvement of the United Nations, who demanded the exhumation of the body.
‘Because the girl was considered as having no voice, as not being educated, the military hadn’t thought the case would trouble them in any way. They thought they could just kill her and it would be no problem. But we persistently worked for seven years to force the excavation to happen. We have since discovered the girl was tortured. She was submerged in cold water and given electric shocks on her wet body.
‘This is a case that I have been working on for 13 years now. Luckily, in April this year we were finally able to convict three officers who were involved in her death.’
Sadly, despite the convictions, none of the officers has been arrested, a turn of events that is all too common in Nepal.
‘There is another case we have been working on where we managed to convict a central committee member of the Maoist party for murder, but he has still not been arrested,’ says Mandira. ‘He was involved with murdering a young businessman, and when the businessman’s brother tried to have the murder investigated, he too was brutally killed. They used the daughter to identify her father before they killed him, and after this she started to have psychological problems and committed suicide. The entire family was then forced to leave the village and they became displaced, with the Maoists taking control of their property.’
There are few who would be able to face such grave injustices and heart-rending tragedies on an almost daily basis, and yet despite everything she has experienced, Mandira remains a resolutely calm and grounded individual, with an intelligence and sense of compassion that is immediately apparent upon meeting her. Although softly spoken, it is all too easy to imagine her proving a formidable opponent in a court of law, and it’s not hard to see why the Nepalese government consider her such a threat to their corrupt manoeuvrings.
Growing up in Baglung, Mandira says she was aware from a young age that females were widely treated as second-class citizens by Nepalese society.
‘It was difficult,’ she says. ‘We were lucky if we had any education. A lot of my friends didn’t have the opportunity to go to schools. It was considered not necessary because, well, they will just be getting married and having children, so why do they need education? That was the thinking of the time. It wasn’t thought of as discrimination – it was just a part of life. Thankfully, women’s rights have improved quite a lot in the last two or three decades.’
Prior to 1990, Nepal was ruled by, as Mandira puts it, ‘absolute monarchy’, with no political parties, independent media or freedom of speech.
‘There was a movement going on for democracy, but it was very much underground,’ she says. ‘If you were known to be part of it, you would have been in prison. Although I was young, I was aware of what was going on and I knew that some of my own teachers and relatives were involved. Sometimes they would ask me to take a letter from this place to that place and I could do it knowing that I was doing something good.’
After the uprising of November 1990, a new constitution was adopted and political parties were established, while those who had been imprisoned were gradually released.
‘They had been subjected to serial torture and were very different people,’ says Mandira. ‘It was the first time I realised just how much torture can destroy the personality of a person. People who had previously been so articulate, who had been very good teachers, had been completely destroyed by the psychological impact.’
It was witnessing such state-sanctioned torture that first inspired Mandira to find ways to tackle human rights abuses.
‘I volunteered to join a medical team who were providing care for torture survivors,’ she says. ‘My job was to document their stories in order to help medical professionals make an assessment of the support they needed. Then I started to be exposed to how
people are treated in detention facilities and that is when I decided to become
Encouraged by her mother (‘she said “there are no female lawyers in this district so why don’t you become one?”), Mandira completed her law degree in Kathmandu, before then gaining an
LL.M (Master of Laws) at the University of Essex.
‘I was very fortune to study at Essex, which is one of the very best universities in terms of human rights education,’ she says. ‘I was trying to explore the legal avenues that I could use to monitor police detentions in Nepal because that was where people were being tortured at the time. It was that which led to me setting up the Advocacy Forum.’
Despite the improvements that have taken place in Nepal over recent years, it remains a deeply corrupt country, as demonstrated by the treatment of Mandira and the many others who have dared to stand up to the powers-that-be.
‘Although the constitution in Nepal says that every accused person has the right to consult a lawyer, none of the detainees in detention used to have access to lawyers – none of them. The police would not even allow us to visit detention centres. And not just the police, but other lawyers. The legal community would say: “Why do you need lawyers at a detention centre? Lawyers are only needed at court”. We would have senior lawyers saying that we were the ones acting unethically.’
Nevertheless, Mandira remains hopeful that one day Nepal will be able to enjoy the freedoms that those in the West so often take for granted.
‘I don’t think it’s impossible,’ she says. ‘The question is how long we will have to struggle for that, but I’m pretty hopeful if we can sustain the momentum then it’s possible. We mustn’t give up.
‘Things are changing in Nepal and I really hope it is for the better. I am hopeful that one day we will be able to establish rule of law in Nepal and no one will be fearful for performing their professional duties.’
lMandira Sharma has won numerous awards, including the Human Rights Defenders Award from the Human Rights Watch and the Australian Leadership Award. For more information on Mandira and the Advocacy Forum, visit advocacyforum.org.