10 MIN READ
On October 30, 2021 (Kartik 13, 2078 BS), Kantipur daily published a front-page story about one Uma Shankar Rayabhar. The story, which had been written by Tufan Neupane, a journalist covering the judiciary beat for Kantipur, featured Uma Shankar, a local of Parwanipur Rural Municipality in Bara district, whose identity had been used as a scapegoat for a tax fraud scam that amounted to over Rs 280 million. Uma Shankar was taken into police custody on March 3, 2021 (Falgun 19, 2077 BS) and had already spent almost eight months in Nakhu jail when Neupane’s first piece was published.
Since then, Neupane has written a series of articles documenting Uma Shankar’s false imprisonment and the judicial oversights that led to it. Neupane’s continued reporting on the case and how the judicial system in Nepal is often rigged against the poor led to much public awareness about the case, which was then picked up pro bono by lawyer Radhika Khatiwada.
With Khatiwada’s legal assistance and Neupane’s documentation, Uma Shankar was finally released from prison on January 28, 2022 (Magh 14, 2078 BS) on bail of Rs 25,000 by the Supreme Court, as opposed to the initial bail of Rs 7.5 million.
While Uma Shankar did finally get some justice, his story leaves some bigger questions unanswered. How did a common man fall into a Rs 280 million scam? How did our judicial system overlook such obvious fallacies in the investigation? How did one journalist manage to ensure that justice was delivered? And most importantly, what does this case say about the dispensation of justice in the country?
A good place to begin answering these questions is with the journalist in question and how he came across the story in the first place.
Finding Uma Shankar Rayabhar
Neupane, 35, joined Kantipur in September last year and primarily covers the judiciary, human rights, transitional justice, and environmental crime. Prior to joining Kantipur, Neupane worked for Himal Khabarpatrika and for Nagarik daily as the Nepalgunj correspondent. Neupane, who has worked for more than 12 years as a journalist, said that even before his time with Himal and Nagarik, he had found his true calling as a reporter while working for a local radio station and paper in Butwal.
How Neupane came across Uma Shankar’s case was simply chance. Roughly a month after Neupane joined Kantipur, he was told about Rayabhar’s case by a colleague. It so happened that after Uma Shankar was taken to prison, his brother Santosh Rayabhar had started coming to Kathmandu time and again, hoping to find lawyers who might be willing to review his brother’s case. Unable to pay exorbitant consulting fees, Santosh had been forced to return home empty-handed while his brother remained helpless and confused in a jail cell in Nakhu.
“A friend at Kantipur who does parliamentary reporting happened to come upon Santosh. I am not entirely sure how they met or how they got to talking, but my friend got Santosh’s contact number and then later referred him to me since I am tasked with reporting on judicial matters,” Neupane told The Record.
By the time Neupane was able to reach out, Santosh had already given up hope and returned home to Bara, where Uma Shankar’s wife and one-year-old daughter also reside. Till this point in time, Neupane was still unsure about the validity of Rayabhar’s case, but still, he decided to ask Santosh to communicate to him all the information he had about Uma Shankar. Santosh proceeded to WhatsApp Neupane all the legal documents that he had.
Unfortunately, the legal documents that Santosh had were only a court order stating a bail amount of Rs 7.5 million, and a copy of the statements that Uma Shankar had given in court. This was not even close to enough evidence for Neupane to properly formulate a story. Despite this, Neupane was undeterred. He believed Santosh and decided to get to the bottom of Uma Shankar’s case. This is where Neupane’s investigation really began.
Going down the rabbit hole
The first thing Neupane had to do was find any record that might pertain to Uma Shankar and the situation he was in. To do so, Neupane went to look up the case at the high court.
“Ideally, you can use the case number to look up any and all files concerning the case,” said Neupane.
However, the situation was not ideal. Unsurprisingly, Neupane’s prodding into Uma Shankar’s case files was met with a lot of friction at the government office. Compared to the information Uma Shankar’s brother had, there was a lot more information at the high court.
“Just the charge sheets were almost a hundred pages long, along with other information. But I was not allowed to get a copy of the information nor was I allowed to view the documents page-by-page,” said Neupane.
Since the direct route did not work, Neupane was compelled to take a more indirect approach.
“I used the contacts that I had built during the course of my reporting career to get myself copies of the orders and charge sheet issued by the court, along with details of the investigation that had been conducted by the Department of Revenue Investigation,” he said.
Now that he was finally able to comb through the documents corresponding to Uma Shankar’s case, Neupane, who has an academic background in law, could tell that something had been overlooked during the investigation and trial.
“Even in the report from the Department of Revenue Investigation, you could tell that Uma Shankar had not benefited from the tax fraud he was accused of,” said Neupane.
To further solidify his theory that the high court had made an error while judging Uma Shankar’s case, Neupane spoke to some senior lawyers about whether or not Uma Shankar had a strong case. These lawyers only further corroborated his findings. More and more, it began to look like the court had convicted Uma Shankar and issued an incredibly high bail amount despite the weak evidence.
Armed with all the information that he needed to prove his case, Neupane wrote what would be the first of many pieces on Uma Shankar Rayabhar.
While the piece did make the front page of Nepal’s largest national daily, the story did not have the initial impact that he had hoped for. Neupane himself believed that the story would go like most other stories that get published: read one day and forgotten the next. He felt that while his initial reporting had presented all the facts and evidence in a technically sound manner, it lacked emotion.
In the third week of Mangsir, around the beginning of December, Neupane had to travel to the Tarai on an unrelated reporting assignment. After he was done with his work, Neupane decided to take a detour to visit Uma Shankar’s home and family in Bara. Prior to this trip, Neupane’s sole point of contact with the Rayabhar family had been Uma Shankar’s brother Santosh. Neupane had not even met Uma Shankar himself.
In his visit to the Rayabhar household, Neupane really got to know about the realities that the family faced.
“Uma Shankar had been accused of evading Rs 280 million in taxes. For that to be true, he should have been handling over six times that amount, at the very least. But his family was living in a tiny mud house that had been built on land that they did not even own,” said Neupane. “You could even see the sky from cracks in the ceiling.”
Once Neupane got back to his desk in Kathmandu, he started penning a second story. This time around, Neupane wanted to showcase how a family that was barely getting by had been dragged into a legal battle concerning millions of rupees that they knew nothing about.
Neupane’s reports eventually had a tangible output when lawyer Radhika Khatiwada agreed to take on Uma Shankar’s case pro bono. As the case progressed to the Supreme Court, Khatiwada worked out the legal ins and outs needed to help Rayabhar while Neupane continued to fervently document how the case played out in court.
Finally, on January 29, 2022 (Magh 15, 2078 BS) Neupane was able to write about Uma Shankar’s release. Nearly a year after he had been taken into custody, and around three months after Neupane’s first story, Uma Shankar was released on a grossly reduced bail of Rs 25,000, a much more reasonable sum compared to the initial Rs 7.5 million.
When asked about Neupane’s contribution to ensuring that Uma Shankar received justice, Khatiwada stated that usually stories like these are covered once and never followed up on, but Neupane’s dedication to uncovering the full story was ultimately what led to Rayabhar’s release.
“Tufan followed not just the legal story, but also the financial and social story of the Rayabhar family. The series of stories that he produced was pivotal in developing public opinion,” said Khatiwada.
As for Uma Shankar Rayabhar himself, in a telephone conversation with The Record, he expressed gratitude towards Neupane’s stories and the media.
“I would not have been able to get out if it had not been for the work that Tufan dai did,” he said.
Uma Shankar’s is certainly not the only case where an individual has been falsely accused and imprisoned by the system. Since the publication of his stories on Uma Shankar, Neupane said that Kantipur has been receiving numerous tips about other similar cases.
As for Uma Shankar, he might have been released from prison but his future remains uncertain. Uma Shankar is only out on bail; the case against him is still ongoing at the high court. The primary offender in the case, Saroj Mishra, is still on-the-run alongside seven others of the 17 who have been implicated in the tax fraud by the Department of Revenue Investigation. If the court rules against Uma Shankar, he might still be liable to go back to prison. And if it rules in favor of Uma Shankar, then it would mean that the 11 months that he spent in prison will have been for nothing.
A faulty system and the power of good journalism
“There is a principle within the criminal justice system called ‘presumption of innocence’. It essentially means that in any case, a person is to be considered innocent until proven guilty,” said Neupane. “If that’s the case then the system should not be throwing people directly into prison for crimes they haven't been proven guilty of.”
Neupane also points out that the whole reasoning behind assigning bail is so that a person who has been arrested can remain free to fight their case outside of detention, while also making sure that these people will come to court during their trial. However, setting a bail amount that Uma Shankar could not possibly pay essentially condemned him to prison.
The fact that bodies such as the Department of Revenue Investigation and the high court failed to properly investigate Uma Shankar’s background points to a larger fault in our judicial system and how easy it is for crooks to take advantage of the poor and uneducated. It is the work of investigative journalists like Neupane that keeps state institutions like the judiciary in check.
“I think there is still a big need for long-form investigative stories in the Nepali media. It has been gradually growing but it is still not to a point where it’s enough,” said Neupane. “Rayabhar’s case isn’t a huge milestone. Sure, it is satisfying as a journalist to see a story you did have a direct and immediate impact, but there are still many more stories that need more attention from us.”
Sajeet M. Rajbhandari Sajeet is a Media Studies undergraduate and is currently reporting for The Record.
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