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Probe shows prison officials’ role in events leading to youth’s jail death

Probe shows prison officials’ role in events leading to youth’s jail death

A new report by a committee formed to probe into the death of a Dalit youth in a jail in Rolpa has raised serious questions over Nepal’s prison administration.

Sundar Harijan, 20, died in jail on May 18 under suspicious circumstances. He was said to have died by suicide.

The probe committee has found that it was a case of identity swapping—that Harijan was serving time for another criminal. It has also found that there was gross negligence on the part of prison administration.

The executive summary of the report, a copy of which is seen by the Post, says CCTV footage of the time when Harijan ‘committed suicide’ is not available and recommends further detailed investigation by the Nepal Police.

Harijan was jailed on charges of mobile phone theft by Banke District Court judge Dilip Raj Onta.

Harijan was handed down one-year jail and Rs10,000 fine for mobile theft. He was supposed to remain in jail until September 3, 2020. His jail term, however, was extended until October 8 after he could not pay the fine.

Meanwhile, Bijay Bikram Shah was sent to jail for extortion and his involvement in organised crime. He was due to get released on March 6 next year.

But for no apparent reason, both Harijan and Shah were transferred to Rolpa Prison on November 23.

Then came the twist. Shah was released on January 12, 2021 as Harijan. Harijan continued to be in jail as Shah.

Harijan was found dead on May 18 at the Rolpa jail in a suspicious condition.

Earlier on May 20, the government had formed a probe panel led by Jharendra Chapagain, director of the Department of Prison Management, to study the death of Harijan. The panel submitted its report to Basudev Ghimire, director general of the Department of Prison Management, saying there was no involvement of the prison administration in Harijan’s death.

But the Home Ministry formed yet another committee led by Surya Prasad Sedhai, a joint secretary at the ministry, on May 31 to investigate the matter.

The Sedhai committee’s report has pointed out that Shah influenced the then acting jailor of Banke District Prison Dipendra Prasad Poudel and Dinesh Kumar Yadav, who was working as a driver for the prison. The panel found that Poudel and Yadav were pretty close with each other.

“Yadav, the driver, left for India immediately after the incident,” the executive summary of the report states. “He closed all his contacts, including phone and his social media accounts. Both Poudel and Yadav appear to have accomplices in the incident.”

The panel has recommended that the Nepal Police carry out a detailed investigation into the activities of Khadka Bahadur Khatri, also a prisoner, who was seen in CCTV footage talking to other inmates after Harijan’s death.

“From the details mentioned in the report it is clear that the then civil servants related to prison administration made serious mistakes and negligence in accomplishing their responsibilities and following laws, we recommend legal action against them,” the report states. “Likewise, we also recommend immediate implementation of the suggestions of this panel.”

The committee employed different methods for completing its study including field inspection, information collection and analysis, enquiry and the analysis of phone call and incident details.

The Sedhai-led panel included Jhanka Nath Dhakal, director of the Department of Prison Management, Superintendent of Nepal Police Bhupendra Khatri, Deputy Investigation Director of National Investigation Department Bishwamani Acharya and an administrative officer at the District Administration Office, Banke.

Its members also met with Shah, who is currently doing time in Barabanki District of India’s Uttar Pradesh, on drug trafficking charges, through unofficial channels.

Shah had told the investigation team that Harijan could have committed suicide after Khadka Bahadur Khatri, who is also known as Tora Bora, and Prakash Budha tortured him to return their money. The report does not have details of the money Shah is referring to.

The panel has recommended action against those who decided to transfer Shah and Harijan from Banke to Rolpa, saying that they failed to discharge their duties properly.

“I cannot say anything about the report because there are some very sensitive security issues,” said Surya Sedhai, joint secretary of the Home Ministry, who led the probe panel.

The Sedhai panel was asked to submit its report in seven days from the day they started their work. The panel submitted a report to Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand on Tuesday.

After receiving the report, Khand said he would implement the recommendations of the report.

According to another joint secretary of the Home Ministry, who wished not to be named, the recommendations of the probe panel will be implemented gradually.

He said the panel has made many recommendations including the reforms in prison administration and management of physical infrastructure, maintaining proper records of the prisoners with their clear identification so as to ensure that such incidents of identity swapping are not repeated in the future.

The National Human Rights Commission has also formed a separate probe panel. A report is pending.

The National Dalit Commission, however, said despite its wish to conduct a probe on its own, it could not do so because of fund crunch.

“We wanted to send an independent panel to investigate the death of the Dalit youth under suspicious circumstances in the prison. But we could not do so,” said Devraj Bishworkarma, chairperson of the Dalit Commission. “We could not manage funds for the probe.”

Legal experts say the government should come up with a new legal provision to control the crimes related to prisoner swapping as this could happen in the future as well.

“Since this is a new kind of crime in which prison administration officials seem to be involved, a separate law should be brought to curb such new forms of criminal activities,” said Balaram KC, former justice of the Supreme Court.

KC said the government must form another independent enquiry commission led by a sitting High Court judge as this is a serious issue in which all the state mechanism seems to have been involved in taking the life of a youth.

“The state is the custodian of the fundamental rights of its people,” KC told the Post. “The jailor concerned must be punished and the state must issue a public apology to the people and form an independent commission.”