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Every new development in the Nirmala Panta rape case has only led to more confusion. The latest development, of July 30, isn’t any different. Panta, a 13-year-old teenager, was raped and brutally murdered in July 2018. 

On Thursday, July 30, the Kanchanpur District Court acquitted the eight police officials accused of destroying the evidence in the case and of torturing the prime suspect, Dilip Bista, to extract a confession. The torture case against four officials–DSP Angoor GC, DSP Gyan Bahadur Sethi, Inspector Ekindra Bahadur Khadka, and Inspector Jagadish Prasad Bhatta–was filed by Khadak Bista, brother of Dilip Bista. And the ‘offence against public justice’ case (for destroying the evidence in the case) was filed against the eight police officials by the deceased’s mother, Durga Devi Pant. 

But on Thursday, a single bench of judge Gopal Prasad Bastola ruled that the court found no proof that the defendants had destroyed the evidence or that the defendants had committed torture.  

The ruling means that the defendants–SP Dilliraj Bista (the then Kanchanpur police chief), Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Angoor GC, DSP Gyan Bahadur Sethi, Inspector Ekindra Bahadur Khadka, Inspector Jagadish Prasad Bhatta, Sub Inspector (SI) Hari Sigh Dhami, Ram Singh Dhami, and Constable Chandani Saud–have been declared innocent. They may soon be able to return to active duty. 

The plaintiff’s lawyers, however, have pointed out the faulty process used in arriving at the judgement: First, the court never mentioned in its weekly and daily court list the hearing date for the offence against public justice. The court heard the torture case on July 29, and its hearing was to continue the next day. But on July 30, out of the blue, the court brought the case of the offence against public justice. “The entire process was thus faulty. Besides, the court kept the plaintiff’s lawyers from attending the hearing on the case,” says advocate Pushpa Poudel. 

Furthermore, the case–which was represented by a group of lawyers from Kathmandu,  alongside government attorneys–was finally heard only after the court said that with the lockdown being lifted, the hearing shouldn’t be delayed. 

The ruling, however, was a foregone conclusion, as the plaintiff herself had been trying to withdraw  the case.   

The latest development adds yet another chapter of confusion to the already enigmatic case, reigniting fresh debates on the roles of the investigating officers as well as of Nepal’s criminal justice system. 

Countless media reports and findings by various investigations–including by the Nepal Police’s own investigation–conducted in the aftermath of the case had found gross negligence by police officers in the handling of the case. 

SP Bista’s team, for instance, had begun the search for Nirmala Panta more than 12 hours after Durga Devi sought the police’s help in searching for her missing daughter.  A video and photos from the crime scene point to negligence in protecting the evidence.  Later, Yagya Raj Panta, Nirmala’s father, was coerced to burn the body, amid widespread protests, which SP Bista attempted to quell by ordering his men to use force against the peaceful protestors.

The ruling has raised fresh doubts over the validity of the widely documented reports on the case and forced many to question whether the authorities, for the sake of defusing public pressure, had turned the police officers into scapegoats, as had been done with others before them. 

The case has been mired in controversy from the start. In the early morning of July 27, 2018, Nirmala Panta’s body was found in a sugarcane field. A day earlier, her mother had reported her missing, after Nirmala had gone over to her friend Roshani’s home. The police haven’t been able to say who killed Nirmala. Instead, the case has become a textbook example of how not to handle a crime case, thanks to a series of follies that has laid bare serious flaws in Nepal’s police-investigation procedures and its criminal justice system. 

Since the investigation started, in August 2018, the police have tried unsuccessfully to frame over a dozen people, further eroding their own credibility with every new attempt. 

Jeevan Gharti Magar and Dipak Negi were the first to be arrested and made public as the culprits. Their only fault: they were the ones who found Nirmala’s body. The allegation would later shift to Dipak  Negi, Roshani Bam, Chakra Badu, Hemanti Bhatta, Pradip Rawal, Bishal Chaudhary, and Dilip Bista. Many of those thus trotted out have accused the police of torturing them into accepting culpability for the crime and for defaming them by leaking baseless information to the media. 

The Nepal Police have cleared all suspects now but Dilip Bista. The suspect, who has served nine years for killing his brother-in-law, has confessed to raping Nirmala and killing her to cover up the crime. He has confessed to raping her near a river and killing her by breaking her vocal cord, the method of killing stated in the postmortem report. The details he offered during his confession, recorded in a video conversation, correlates with the initial findings from the crime scene and postmortem report. 

Sources say that the new police chief, Sailesh Thapa Chettri, is considering reopening the case against Dilip Bista and has directed the CIB to gather more evidence against him. 

But it remains to be seen if the police will proceed with the case, especially as public backlash could ensue–because the DNA test result does not accord with Dilip Bista’s confession. Moreover, many think that the police might have coerced Dilip Bista–whose mental health is questionable–to confess to the crime. Complicating matters even more, the case has not yet been registered as a rape case. In Nepal, the statute of limitations for rape is one year. That means, the case cannot be further pursued as a rape case. The murder charge can still be pursued, though.

Since her daughter’s death in 2018, Durga Devi has been living the daily ritual of waking up to countless promises of justice and ultimately going to bed in utmost dejection. She has not been able to understand what is stopping the police from arresting Dilip Bista when he has already confessed to the crime.  “Either they should say the video is fake or they should arrest him,” says Durga Devi.