Kathmandu, Nepal - After years of foot-dragging, Nepal will formally investigate crimes committed during its bloody civil war, which pitted government forces against Maoist guerrillas demanding an end to royalist rule and the emergence of a communist republic.
Critics, however, have challenged a bill passed through parliament last month that created two commissions of enquiry, saying it allowed amnesty for those guilty of serious abuses including killings and torture.
An estimated 1,300 people were forcibly disappeared during Nepal's decade-long Maoist insurgency that ended in 2006, after rebel leaders and government officials signed a peace accord. More than 16,000 people were killed during the war, according to Nepal's Peace and Reconciliation Ministry, and tens-of-thousands were displaced.
Rights groups accuse both security forces and former rebels of committing grave human rights abuses.
Ram Kumar Bhandari clearly remembers the day his father disappeared into police custody. On December 31, 2001, Tej Bahadur Bhandari - a retired schoolteacher then 56-years old - was summoned to the Lamjung district police headquarters in Nepal's western hills. A member of the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist), a moderate political faction, Bhandari was suspected of aiding Maoist fighters.
"Since then, I don't know what happened to my father. Instead of truth, we were served rumours," Bhandari told Al Jazeera. "People told me that he was murdered after being tortured in custody. I also heard that he had been transferred to another police office."
Amnesty can very well be part of such a process, but it hasn't criminalised serious crimes such as disappearance, torture.
Striking a deal - finally
The 2006 peace agreement envisioned the formation of commissions on truth and reconciliation and enforced disappearances as key components, scheduled to be completed within six months. But it took Nepal's leaders nearly eight years to formulate the laws to make these happen.
A bill was finally presented to parliament on April 18 and ratified by a majority of lawmakers on April 25.
The bill was hastened by a Supreme Court ruling in January ordering parliament to introduce two separate bills for each commission. The court also directed the government not to include provisions granting amnesty for serious human rights violations.
But the new bill has been heavily criticised by rights activists who said it does just that . A section states that only rape perpetrators cannot be recommended for amnesty, but the commissions can clear offenders for other war crimes including killings, physical and mental torture, and disappearances.
Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed "grave concerns" last month.
"While I welcome steps taken by the government of Nepal to take the transitional justice process forward, I am extremely concerned by its new attempt to introduce amnesties for serious human rights violations. Such amnesties not only violate core principles under international law, but would also weaken the foundation for a genuine and lasting peace in Nepal," Pillay said in a press release .
'Focus on reconciliation'
Govinda Sharma "Bandi", a lawyer and transitional justice expert, said the bill had been ratified by parliamentarians after a crucial amendment was made to the wording on granting amnesty.
"The bill had a provision in which the victim's consent was mandatory for amnesty. But it was amended to reflect that the commission would 'take into account victim's consent' while giving amnesty. In other words, the commission holds powers to grant amnesty," he told Al Jazeera.
| Former Maoist rebel chief Prachanda, or 'Fierce One' [Reuters]
Bandi said the commissions will try to establish what happened during the war, and "the focus is on reconciliation".
The process should also address justice and reparations to victims, the prosecution of perpetrators, and institutional reform, he added.
"Amnesty can very well be part of such a process, but it hasn't criminalised serious crimes such as disappearance, torture. This is contrary to the Supreme Court ruling, which clearly stated that it should follow international norms," Bandi said.
His words were echoed by Bhandari who - while seeking the truth about what happened to his father - has also established himself as a strong voice in representing victims of the 10-year war.
"We have run from pillar to post, demanding to know the answers about our relatives who have disappeared," Bhandari said. "This is a crime, but it [the commission] doesn't criminalise enforced disappearances.
"Our leaders have made us as a bargaining tool. In several agreements, the Maoists and other parties have incorporated this issue to strike deals to form governments. Moreover, over the years, the evidence has been lost."
A coordinator of the National Network of Families of Disappeared, Bhandari has written newspaper columns, participated in sit-in protests, and lobbied government officials and rights groups for investigations into war crimes.
But Bhandari said he is doubtful the commissions would serve justice for victims of the internecine war.
"Healing wounds and reconciliations are long-term processes. We want reconciliation, we are not fighting for revenge. But I can't really expect justice from a commission which holds immense power. It doesn't favour victims' families like ours."
If you look at it from a victim's perspective, it may not completely heal the wounds ... But the focus, as it should be, is on reconciliation rather than on individual cases. This is according to our political reality.
While rights activists and victims zero in on justice, some pundits argue that allowing the commissions to work towards reconciliation would move Nepal's fractured political scene closer together.
"This is the last hurdle in completing the peace process. Once the commissions begin the work, the constitution-writing process will move forward," said Sudheer Sharma, a political commentator and chief editor of Kantipur , Nepal's best-selling newspaper.
"If you look at it from a victim's perspective, it may not completely heal the wounds. And it's natural because victims are aggrieved, it's not easy for them to accept truth," he said. "But the focus, as it should be, is on reconciliation rather than on individual cases. This is according to our political reality."
Conceived as fact-finding, non-judicial bodies, the proposed commissions with five members each will have two-year terms, and each will be headed by a former chief justice of the Supreme Court who are yet to be named.
The commissions will be tasked with identifying the perpetrators, initiating reconciliation with their victims, and recommending reparations.
As Nepal embarks on the painful process of healing the civil war's still-festering wounds, Bhandari and other victims' families say it remains to be seen whether they'll receive the justice they've long battled for.