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Given the current climate where public trust in the justice system has steadily declined, the Supreme Court’s decision to review a verdict passed by Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana and Justice Tej Bahadur KC to commute the life imprisonment sentence of a murder convict, Ranjan Prasad Koirala, after eight-and-a-half years, may be just the saving grace the judiciary needed.

On Sunday, a full bench of justices, including Bam Kumar Shrestha, Prakash Kumar Dhungana, and Kumar Regmi, granted permission to review last month’s judgement, pointing out its discrepancies. Since the judgement was made by a bench comprising the Chief Justice, many had speculated that the court would quell the review petition. The court’s decision to reopen the case for hearing has rekindled the hope of renewed public faith in the court.

“The decision has pacified public anger over the judgement for now. It also addresses the public’s disbelief towards this court verdict,” said advocate Sunil Pokharel.

Soon after the verdict was announced, a gathering of youths in Maitighar, Kathmandu, chanted slogans demanding that the Chief Justice be impeached for releasing a murder convict before he had completed his sentence. Seldom do hundreds of youths take to the streets to protest verdicts delivered by the apex court. 

The intensity of public outrage was heightened by the fact that the convict is a former Deputy Inspector General (DIG), third-in-command in the Armed Police Force (APF). In January 2012, then DIG Ranjan Koirala murdered his wife, Geeta Dhakal, cut her body into pieces, transported the body in an APF vehicle, and dumped it in Makwanpur District. On his way to Makwanpur and back, he also abused his authority to avoid police check up in Thankot.

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In his statement to the court, Koirala had said that his wife’s death was accidental–that he had only pushed her away, upon which Dhakal’s head had hit a wall, fatally injuring her. Sunday’s bench, however, said that circumstantial evidence indicated anything but an accident, and that his decision to dispose of the body made his claim more suspicious. Additionally, it said that the Chief Justice’s bench had violated the precedent set by the cases of Shanti BK, Jugat Sada, Sher Bahadur Basnet, and Kedar Majhi.

In 2012, the Kathmandu District Court sentenced Koirala to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife. The appellate court also upheld the district court’s verdict, but the Chief Justice’s bench passed a judgement stating that life imprisonment was too harsh a sentence for an incident that the defendant claimed was accidental. With Sunday’s decision, the case has been reopened for hearing, with the reviewers saying that the judgement was not warranted given the evidence and that it was based on a faulty argument.

As public rage deepened over Koirala’s release, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) was compelled to register a review appeal at the apex court on Friday, the very day the convict was released from prison. Lawyers privy to the case said that the government attorneys had inadequately represented the case during the initial hearing. According to them, the OAG had sent a relatively inexperienced attorney, who took barely five minutes to present his argument.

The reopening of the case signals a course correction for the justice system. The reduction of Koirala’s sentence–on unjustifiable grounds–had been a let down, creating a sense of public distrust and disillusionment with the larger system. With the case now open for review, there is a sense of relief among the public. 

“The review of the verdict is a constitutional and legal process. This will test whether the judgement of the apex court or the district court is correct,” said Pokharel.

Nepal’s apex court has a history of going against its own verdicts when they are subjected to judicial review. In January 2017, the apex court disqualified Lokman Singh Karki, the then chief of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), from holding his position, even though its earlier verdict had given him a clean chit. In 2013, during a row over whether Karki was qualified to hold the position as CIAA’s chief, a division bench of the apex court had concluded that he was qualified to lead the anti-graft body.

A similar precedent was established in a case related to former princess Prerana Shah Singh. After transitioning from monarchy to republic, the Nepal government nationalised all properties belonging to the former royal family. As per the decision, 15 ropanis of land in Chhauni, Kathmandu, that was registered in the name of the former princess was also nationalised. Singh challenged the government’s decision, claiming the land had been registered in her name as dowry.

Responding to her writ petition, a division bench of apex court justices — which included then CJ Ram Kumar Sah and Justice Cholendra Shamsher Rana — decided to award ownership of the land to the former princess. The Office of Nepal Trust, however, filed a review appeal at the apex court. In response to the review appeal, a full bench of justices — including Biswambhar Prasad Shrestha, Ishwar Khatiwada, and Ananda Mohan Bhattarai — granted the court permission to conduct a re-hearing of the case. In January 2017, based on that permission, a full bench, comprising then Chief Justice Sushila Karki and Justices Deepak Kumar Karki and Sapana Pradhan Malla, annulled the previous verdict, returning ownership of the land to the Trust.

“Reviewing verdicts by the court makes for good practice. The latest case was reviewed for its having violated precedence. While it’s true that the court can reduce punishment, the rationale behind such decisions should be justifiable,” said advocate Bikash Basnet. 

The decision to review Koirala’s case presupposes faulty judgement. There is now the possibility that the latest verdict will be retracted. If the court were to decide that Koirala’s original sentence should be upheld, the public would be appeased. But such a decision would also further increase the scrutiny on CJ Cholendra Shumsher Rana.