Opinion | Rape trial in Nepal is an endless journey

Representational Image.

Sabina Acharya

  • Read Time 3 min.

The recent verdict in the rape trial of Nepali cricketer Sandip Lamichhane has provided some sort of strength to similar victims. While prosecuting rape perpetrators continues to be difficult, it is even more challenging to provide victims with the strength to seek access to justice and fight against the stereotypical mindset.

It may be the 21st century, but gender inequality, sexism, and bias still run deep in our society. Sadly, this is sometimes reflected in the justice system. The filing of sexual violence cases is entirely at the discretion of the police and the attorney’s office, which “picks and chooses” the statements and witnesses in the chargesheet. They may also opt for a sloppy investigation if pressured by higher or external forces. Some investigating officers approach victims with skepticism, and some prosecutors dissuade them from seeking justice. Even during courtroom proceedings, personal attacks against the victims occur. Some defense lawyers vigorously defend their clients, accusing the victims of fabricating for money or revenge. Rape trials should focus on facts and evidence related to the allegations, rather than regressing into mudslinging or conspiracy theories against vulnerable victims.

Nepal’s apex court has proposed for fast-track courts to oversee rape and domestic violence cases. However, it is not just about the quantity of decisions made but the quality of justice delivered. Many countries are making important changes to make the trial process less traumatizing for rape victims. In the United States, impact statements at sentencing give victims a voice, while rape shield laws limit questioning on irrelevant sexual history. There are also provisions of remote testimony through video conference or from a location where the accused is not directly visible in order to mitigate re-traumatization. South Africa has gone further with specialized courts for sexual assault. It is really necessary to ensure that courts are trauma-informed and support the dignity and justice of people who come forward. Technicalities or lack of physical evidence should not impede investigations or deter charges when the victim’s accounts credibly establish the occurrence of assault. Past sexual history must not be used to blame victims.

Media trial is another important aspect of a rape trial. Media coverage expects to increase public awareness and put more pressure on the government to take action. However, victims may also suffer from further trauma as a result of media coverage. In patriarchal societies like ours, victim-blaming may take place. Victims may also lose their privacy due to media coverage. The coverage of YouTube vloggers during the investigation of the Raute community woman rape case in Surkhet district was particularly upsetting. 

The Surkhet District Court had to order the federal government to remove pictures and videos streaming in social media and take action against those posting such material and ban such sites because they revealed the identity of the victims. Media outlets frequently sensationalize or exaggerate specific details of the crime, misleading the public and breeding mistrust. We have seen such incidents during the investigation of the rape and murder case of Nirmala Pant. At times, media trials may not only put judges and the judiciary under pressure but also could create mistrust towards the judiciary. It is always best to discourage this.

Many people in our society still believe that the only type of adult rape happens with strangers; the rest is considered consensual. People continue to have a narrow view of the situation. Many believe that rape happens due to victim’s fault and that they are to be blamed for what happened to them. They contend that women should avoid going out alone at night and wearing provocative clothing. Neither the judiciary, with its sentencing guidelines nor the legislature, through the adoption of appropriate laws in this area have adequately protected women from being raped and after being raped. Law enforcement, courts, and laws themselves have yet to fully evolve to provide justice, protection, and support across the spectrum of rape and violence against women.

The Lamichhane case has given rise to some hope, but it is a long journey to dismantle the structural barriers that victims must overcome in order to report and seek justice.

Sabina Acharya is a graduate from Kathmandu University School of Law.