Nepal jail keeps woman journalist forcibly detained incommunicado

Charina Cabrido – WNN Justice

Nepal security police Kathmandu
A group of young police security officers stand on duty on the street only a stone’s throw away from the Hanuman Dhoka jail in Bansantapur Durbar Square, Kathmandu in 2013. Image: Ashish Lohorung

(WNN) Kathmandu, NEPAL, SOUTHERN ASIA: As woman Philippine journalist Charina Cabrido describes her recent experience inside the Hanuman Dhoka jail in Kathmandu. 

Ranking in the low 29th percentile with corruption watchdog group TI – Transparency International, Nepal’s record for corruption reveals a wide margin in need of improvement. TI’s Control of Corruption Index Nepal ranking also extends to police and judiciary offices. The most recent Global Corruption Barometer 2013 report by Transparency International outlines that police as well as the judiciary are most often a place where corruption can be found worldwide.

“Public institutions entrusted to protect people suffer the worst levels of bribery,” outlines TI’s 2013 report. “Among the eight services evaluated, the police and judiciary are seen as the two most bribery-prone,” the 2013 report continues.

In a recent exclusive, WNN – Women News Network received journalist Charina Cabrido’s first-hand account of her experience inside one of Kathmandu’s most notorious jails, Hanuman Dhoka. Her account reveals a system ‘where impunity rules’, as she personally witnesses degraded conditions inside small jail cells where up to 12 women are held under incarceration together at one time.

While the Nepalese government has made statements to the United Nations in its 2012 Periodic Report that “The vision of the judiciary is to maintain independent and efficient system of justice so as to ensure justice for all and through promotion of human rights, and independent and efficient system of justice,” it has failed to keep its promises. In contrast cases of reported torture by police officers at Hanuman Dhoka jail have continued.

Without access to anyone outside the jail where she was kept Cabrido was arrested without charges; denied use of a phone during the time of her incarceration; and denied access to any legal counsel or an attorney.

“The practice of placing children in prisons along with adult inmates has been fully abolished,” continued the Government of Nepal in its 2012 statement to the UN.

But Cabrido witnessed the opposite to be true. In a detailed account of her 15 days in custody she shares what can happen to anyone who becomes a victim of a corrupt system where international violations of human rights continue.

The chime of the bell outside echoed loudly in my room. This has roused me from my sleep and welcomed me back to reality. It was a chilly morning in February 2014. The bells ringing are signs that Hindus and Buddhists alike pay for rituals to chase away power-seeking deities and summon the gods.

Inside a four by six square meter room are ten other women whom I share the woolen blankets with while sleeping. The stench of hanging wet socks and underwear exude a vile odor.

It has been three days now since I was locked inside Hanuman Dhoka jail. Located primarily in the middle of Basantapur Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal. The jail is custody for about 186 people, including women, men, children and babies alike.  The baby who came with one mother is 15 months old. He was fed with milk and black coffee everyday for a fee of 15 Nepali rupees for each feeding.

My mind is spinning. How did I end up here?

Three days ago, Nepali police took me forcefully inside the jail. The arrest happened after I attended a district court hearing on a pending case against my ex-husband. The other party in the case did not appear as I saw my ex-husband outside talking on his mobile phone. This lead me to my police arrest only a few meters away from the courtroom.

Despite my aggressive screams and frightened response toward the groundless detainment, the police did not present any ‘warrant of arrest’. They did not communicate any basis of complaint that led to my custody. Six days later as I sat in jail the police showed me my ‘cybercrime’ charges filed by my ex-husband. Currently I am fighting in Kathmandu Court under my charges against him for sexual and domestic violence abuse.

As days passed I witnessed scenes inside the jail becoming worse. I became a living witness and testament to the early morning arrests of women, men and ‘third genders’ by Nepal police, with the latter constantly being abused and scorned. The rounds of unwarranted arrests bringing in new prisoners started at one in the morning, ending at three.

It was in the jail that I heard howling cries, beatings, shouting and murmurs of pain and grief.

One Indian woman was arrested because she was walking ‘late at night’ in Bouddhanath Square. She came in with handcuffs clasping both her hands crying. The police released her the next day. I watched as third genders were a constant target for police abuses. I heard their cries in jail as I closed my eyes realizing the extent of how they were verbally and emotionally ridiculed behind doors, and in front of us, when we had our evening roll calls. On numerous occasions they were not given a room, but instead slept in the freezing jail hallway with blankets.

At times there were twelve of us in one room. On other days we were fourteen.

Those who came in from the early morning arrests slept sitting up with their backs at the wall. In the morning and evening we were served dal bhat (mung bean soup and rice). But it came from server boys with who dipped there hands in the soup to serve us while scooping from big pails. When we suffered under attacks of diarrhea and stomach problems, the police gave us medicines.

Ball pens, paper, rubber bands and mobile phones were not allowed inside the jail. Scarves and shawls were also not exempt. A mother’s shawl was taken away as she tried to cover herself while nursing her 15-month old baby. This pleased the male police since they now had a ‘view’ to look in as they passed by our padlocked room.

In the succeeding days I feared for my life inside my cell.

Security became a serious concern as a series of violent brawls lead to a bleeding guy’s head as he was taken to the hospital. These were the same prisoners who walked past our cell day and night. I cringed at their stares. And I shivered every time the police pummeled batons in our jail cell just to scare us.

Taking a shower was like a shot at the moon. The doors were open and used by both male and female prisoners. The only refuge for us was a visit from our friends and family which was confined to a small room outside. With prisoners handcuffed to each other, and private conversations lost in the air, relatives talked at the same time.

Certainly it seemed the state of prison and prisoners in Nepal have violated major principles for the protection of persons under “any form of detention or imprisonment” as set by the UN General Assembly.

Based on this United Nations human rights principle, “All persons under any form of detention or imprisonment shall be treated in a humane manner and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”

Apparently this was not the case for all of us inside the Hanuman Dhoka jail, particularly the trans genders.

When I was taken to the Attorney General’s Office in Kathmandu and officially read my charges it was six days after I was already detained.

I knew then the police had violated the rule that, “anyone who is arrested shall be informed at the time of his arrest of the reason for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him.” More so, I was not allowed to call my family. And if not for a missed dental appointment in Kathmandu my home country’s Embassy, Nepal Consulate of the Republic of The Philippines, would never had known that I was missing and was already jailed inside the prison.

Even without any legal background, any individual knows that a detained or imprisoned person shall be entitled to notify members of their family upon arrest, detention or imprisonment. I was not given that right and begged the police, unsuccessfully, to give me a chance to call my parents.

This is the crux of the problem. The situation in Hanuman Dhoka jail is similar to other prisons throughout Nepal where overcrowding and unsanitary conditions is a common scenario. The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners says that all sleeping accommodations shall meet all requirements of health, particularly for cubic content of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation.

This is not what is inside the Hanuman Dhoka jail, or in the 73 prisons in various districts of the country. Based on available statistics, of the 73 prisons in Nepal, 41 are overcrowded. The prison in Chitwan, Nepal has a total capacity of 55 but is housing approximately 246 inmates.

The delay in bringing offenders to trial is the main cause of prison overcrowding. Since the facility in Basantapur only serves as a place of custody for offenders with cases under investigation, overcrowding makes it difficult for offenders to reintegrate back into society as they carry the consequences of trauma inside jail and back to the free world once they are released. As a result the overcrowded prison can trigger tensions that lead to increased disruptive social behavior, physical and psychological effects and traumatic social withdrawal.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has reiterated that the current conditions of detention in Nepal jails do not respect prisoners’ fundamental rights, amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment. The Prison Act was formulated years back with Nepal as a signatory to this international obligation. However none of the provisions in the act have been implemented since the prisoners are denied even the most basic human rights.

One alarming scenario is that prisoners in the Hanuman Dhoka jail were mixed with one another despite one prisoner having HIV-AIDS and another suffering with tuberculosis. International standards call for separation of prisoners and detainees as per the status of their case, their health conditions or their genders.

What makes my own experience seemingly more disturbing was the fact that the various unwarranted arrests made by Nepal police invited praises from the public that glorified police power to “clean the streets of crime.”  Against the backdrop of public safety and security lies a world inside where basic human rights are not observed and prisoners are constantly clad with a fear of being tortured.

This sends out a real message from the Himalayan country. At the very least the government is not serious about human rights, given the tenacity and spread of a culture of impunity. As Maoist rebels walk freely away from their crimes in Nepal, the Kathmandu police continue to jail innocent people.

Although normal life routines do happen outside on the streets of Nepal where bells ring to summon the gods and drive away evil spirits; this does not free the prisoners inside Hanuman Dhoka jail from a nightmare. I was released from that nightmare fifteen days after I was arrested without knowing the cause.

Today I bear the scars as I tell my story.

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Charina “Chin” Cabrido is an environmental researcher, a journalist and a cycling advocate from the Philippines. She writes on social issues such as women’s empowerment and human rights. Chin is currently a contributor for Asian Geographic Magazine, The Kathmandu Post, Everest Height, Republica, Nepal News, World Pulse and WIP – Women International Perspective.

This story was written during her 15-day custody in the Hanuman Dhoka jail in Kathmandu, Nepal from February 5 to February 20, 2014. After 15 days in jail, the Kathmandu District Court released Cabrido from her incarceration.

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