By Douglas Gillison
For years, the US military overlooked the growing scandal of a child’s murder at a US-sponsored training facility, records show.
In 2004, Nepali army officers tortured a schoolgirl so brutally that she died. They buried the body of 15-year-old Maina Sunuwar on the grounds of an American-sponsored training center for international peacekeepers.
Devi Sunuwar, Maina’s mother. Photos by Jonas Bendiksen for Magnum.
For nearly a decade, key American diplomatic and military officials quietly overlooked the fact that the Birendra Peace Operations Training Center — on which the US has lavished millions of dollars — was the scene of the crime, which was carried out on orders from the center’s commanding officer.
But in 2013, that changed. A State Department official flagged a nearly seven-year-old United Nations report documenting the Birendra Center’s role in the killing. The murder’s ties to US support for peacekeeping could no longer be ignored.
Rather than holding the military accountable however, newly released documents show US officials were intent on maintaining an uninterrupted flow of US support for the center, despite the discovery. Defense Department officials and a State Department contractor actively sought to avoid triggering a US law designed to promote accountability for such crimes. They feared the United States would have no choice but to cut off support for the Birendra Center, which trains thousands of the world’s UN peacekeepers each year with Washington’s blessing.
American officials in Kathmandu and at US Pacific Command in Hawaii, a regional seat of American military power, argued strenuously against disqualifying the training center under US human rights laws, according to newly released documents obtained by 100Reporters under a Freedom of Information Act request. Instead, Washington persisted in uninterrupted relations with Nepal’s armed forces — responsible for the bulk of killings and disappearances after a ten-year civil conflict that left 13,000 dead. Nepal went on to become an important US partner in the development of UN peacekeeping forces.
In the meantime, Maina Sunuwar’s killers enjoyed years of impunity. US officials failed to use the murder as leverage over a weak local judicial system meant to serve countless families victimized in similar situations.
Mandira Sharma, a founder of the Nepali human rights group Advocacy Forum, told 100Reporters she believed the United States had missed a chance to strengthen the rule of law in her country.
“I very much think that if the US had suspended its support on the grounds of this case, Maina’s family would have got justice long ago,” she said.
With pressure, a chastened Nepali military could have been led to cooperate in this case and many others like it, she contended.
“Lack of rule of law and impunity continues to be the major challenge in protection and promotion of human rights in Nepal,” Sharma said.
On the morning of May 21, 2013, an official at the US Embassy in Kathmandu emailed the embassy’s Office of Defense Cooperation, reporting that there had been a “possible hit” on the training center — meaning information that could threaten continued military cooperation.
“Last night Washington sent us the link below,”
said the author, enclosing a link to a 2006 report by UN human rights workers. (The author’s name was withheld from the released records.)
A police post in the heart village of Ghari Gaun, formerly a Maoist stronghold, where there was no police presence. Photo by Jonas Bendiksen for Magnum.
Whereas the embassy had understood the killing occurred
at an army barracks, the report said crucially that it had
taken place at the Birendra Center, according to the message.
“Let me know when you have time to discuss this,”
According to the UN, the Nepali military had attempted to keep secret the findings of a court of inquiry board looking into Maina Sunuwar’s death.
But a report from investigators nevertheless made its way into the hands of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
According to the UN report which summarized the findings, the inquiry determined that soldiers had taken Maina from her home on February 17, 2004 and delivered her to the training center, where she was tortured for 90 minutes in the presence of seven officers and enlisted men.
The training center’s acting chief, then-Lt. Col. Babi Khatri, ordered that her head be forced into a large pot of water six or seven times and held down for a minute each time, the report said.
Her captors “then administered electric shocks to her wet hands and feet four or five times.” After this, she was blindfolded, handcuffed and held in a training center building.
“She later began vomiting and foaming at the mouth, and died without having received medical treatment,” the report said.
The men then attempted to cover up the killing — firing a bullet into the back of her corpse and burying it on the training center grounds, according to the report.
The commanding officer issued an internal report “stating that Maina Sunuwar had been shot while trying to escape.”
But the inquiry concluded this was a transparent lie, finding instead that “[i]t was indeed as a result of torture inflicted during the course of the interrogation that the death of Maina Sunuwar occurred.”
The killing also represented a deepening cycle of violence and repression in Nepal, with the army killing Maina Sunuwar in an attempt to stifle controversy over the murder and alleged rape of her cousin Reena Rasaili, who had been suspected of supporting the Maoist insurgency just days before Maina’s killing.
For years, the army stonewalled civilian authorities investigating Maina Sunuwar’s disappearance and murder.
Kathmandu, 2007. Photo by Jonas Bendiksen for Magnum.
Alarm over Accountability
In the chain of correspondence that followed, stretching from the embassy in Kathmandu to the Pentagon and State Department, American officials reacted as if they were only learning of the peacekeepers’ involvement in the killing for the first time in 2013. The involvement of officers and facilities at the Birendra Peace Operations Training Center risked invoking a US law known as the Leahy Amendment, which requires the United States to deny assistance to foreign security forces that commit gross violations of human rights.
The records do not make clear how the fact of
the peacekeepers’ involvement could have escaped
American attention for seven years.
For much of this time, it was not State Department practice to screen entire units, such as the Birendra Center, only the precise individuals selected to receive training and equipment — meaning some US background checks might not have considered the Birendra Center as a whole. The policy had changed in 2011.
Just an hour after learning the Birendra Center had been named in the UN report, the head of the US embassy’s Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC) — a position held at the time by US Army Major Dawood Luqman — fired off an “urgent” email to US Pacific Command in Hawaii.
“I don’t need to tell you what a blow it would be,” Luqman wrote, “if BOPTC was blacklisted because of Leahy Vetting.”