NAWALPARASI, 4 August (IRIN) - Prahlat Sahni is just an ordinary villager living in Sarabal village of Nawalparasi district, about 200 km southeast of the Nepali capital, Kathmandu. He makes a meager income from his small farm and has no political interest at all.
But sitting at home after a hard day's work, a group of armed villagers calling themselves members of the 'village defence force' broke into his house and brutally beat him, accusing him of sympathising with the Maoists, who have been waging a nine year insurgency against the government.
Such attacks at the hands of the vigilante groups, who have taken up arms to campaign against the Maoist insurgents are reportedly increasing, a new report by Amnesty International (AI) released on Wednesday maintained.
In its 'Fractured Country, Shattered Lives,' report, AI said it was alarmed at an increasing number of armed civilian groups in many districts of the Himalayan kingdom.
"These groups, which clearly enjoy considerable support from the government of Nepal, are responsible for a growing number of human rights abuses," the watchdog group charged.
AI had initiated an investigative mission to six districts of western Nepal where there had been regular reports of an increasing number of repeated violations of human rights at the hands of the vigilante groups.
"The emergence of these village defence forces is aggravating existing fault lines in Nepali society and contributing to an increasing number of civilians being displaced by the conflict," it said.
Meanwhile, human rights activists and journalists based in Nawalparasi told IRIN that their movement had been severely restricted by members of the vigilante groups accusing them of being too critical about their anti-Maoist campaigns.
"We will not spare anyone who accuses us of violating human rights," Muna Khan, a leader of one such group in the district said.
"The vigilantes have not stopped harassing and torturing civilians in the name of eliminating the Maoists from their district," said journalist JB Pun, who had been kidnapped by the group only a few months back for his critical reporting about their activities.
"Journalists and human rights activists are not allowed to enter the affected areas by the armed vigilantes who receive the protection of the local administration," he claimed.
Indeed, according to activists, the security forces had purportedly provided training on use of military arms in the district. This has been substantiated by Khan who told some journalists that his group members were now more confident about fighting with the rebels following 15 days of military training.
In November 2003, the government had proposed to launch a "Civil Military National Campaign" to counter Maoist violence which included plans to institute "Rural Volunteer Security Groups". The proposal was severely criticised by the international community fearing that this would lead to an escalation in human rights abuse.
"The civilian casualties at the hands of the vigilantes are growing and we are seriously concerned that the rights abuses will grow if immediate steps are not taken to control their activities," human rights activist Subodh Pyakhurel said.
AI also reported that there was mounting evidence that the creation of village defence forces had led to a sharp deterioration of human rights rather than the protection of the civilians.
"The civilians are now facing similar threats, intimidation and extortion at the hands of the vigilantes like they did with the Maoist insurgents," activist Krishna Gautam claimed.
The activists add that the villagers are now being forced to join the vigilantes and take up arms to attack both the Maoists and their sympathisers. "Those who refuse are accused of supporting the rebels, which is why the people are seen joining the groups out of fear," said Pun.
Meanwhile, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) told IRIN that it would conduct its own independent investigation into the activities of the vigilante groups.
"That's definitely a case we need to get some first hand information as to what is happening on the ground and that is certainly amongst our priorities," Ian Martin, head of the newly established OHCHR office in Nepal, told IRIN in Kathmandu. "We will be making visits to areas where alleged vigilantes are operating and to look what their relationship is between them and security forces," Martin added.
The AI report further added that one of the worst human rights abuse at the hands of vigilante groups took place in Kapilbastu, 300 km west of the capital. On 17 February, over 700 houses were burnt and 31 people were killed. It further said that three Maoist suspects were released to an angry crowd by the army and were lynched in front of watching soldiers.
Local army officials estimated that after the killings and house burnings in Kapilbastu in February, 40,000 Nepalis from that district alone crossed the border within a few days.
During its field investigation, AI was told by the local people in Kapilbastu that the village defence forces conducted searches of people's homes very late at night and constantly harassed women and girls during their searches.
"The overarching conclusion to this 'snapshot' view of the human rights situation in six districts of rural Nepal is that civilians are caught in the middle of a brutal conflict. They are coerced by all sides - including by newly emerged village defence forces - to become participants in the conflict," the AI report revealed.
AI believes that alarm bells are ringing over this new trend in human rights abuse and the consequences are dire.
"There is an urgent need for measures to be taken that begin to reverse this and actively seek to realise the human rights and immediate safety of children, women and men in Nepal," the report said.
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