King of Nepal faces 'punishment' over killing of protesters

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The Independent Online

Nepal took a step closer to democracy yesterday when, for the first time, a government inquiry said the King should be punished. A government commission found King Gyanendra responsible for the brutal crackdown on massive protests which forced him to give up absolute power this year.

The ruling left Nepal facing the dilemma of how to punish a man who until a few months ago was regarded as a living incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and whose word was regarded as inviolate.

But all that has changed for King Gyanendra since the protests in April, when half a million Nepalis took to the streets and forced him to give up absolute power and restore democracy. A total of 22 people were killed. Yesterday he watched powerlessly from his palace as the Prime Minister, G P Koirala, pledged that all those found guilty in the commission's report would be punished.

There were thousands of witnesses to the excesses of security forces in response to April's massive protests on the streets of Kathmandu, including international reporters. The Independent was trapped when security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters in the city centre. In one notorious incident, a senior police officer drew his handgun and shot an unarmed protester, who was presenting no threat to him, at point-blank range, in front of hundreds of protesters. The man died. The Nepalese press printed the name of the officer to ensure he faced justice.

More than 5,000 people were injured, the Nepalese government found, such were the lengths the King was prepared to go to against his own people to cling to power. There were mass arrests, and many of those arrested faced torture in jail.

The government report names 201 government officials and security forces commanders as responsible for the atrocities. But foremost among them is King Gyanendra himself.

He was no figurehead at the time. In February 2005, he sacked the government and seized back the absolute powers of a medieval king. When the protesters came on to the streets, the King was chairing cabinet meetings and running the government of Nepal.

The brutal reaction of the security forces - which at the time swore a personal oath of loyalty to the King, not the state - was personally sanctioned by him.

The massive protests were the reaction of ordinary Nepalese who had tired of the King's authoritarian rule and his inability to defeat the Maoist rebels in the 10-year civil war. But King Gyanendra refused to listen to the voice of his people and preferred to try to silence it at gunpoint. He failed, and now he is facing the consequences.

The government inquiry called him to give evidence, but the King, clinging to the tattered mystique of his throne, refused, preferring to stay in his palace, where he has been since his spectacular fall from power.

The inquiry has called for him to be punished but it remains to be seen if the government can enforce that. Much of the army, which guards the palace, remains fiercely loyal to King Gyanendra and bitterly disappointed with the way events have turned out.

But for the Maoists, who have signed a peace deal with the government, King Gyanendra's naming in the report is a major victory.

So far, the King has managed to cling to his throne, albeit stripped of all powers, in a purely ceremonial role. But next year a constituent assembly is to be elected to draw up a new constitution, and to decide the fate of the monarchy.

Although the Maoists insist they are now committed to peace, they say they cannot be part of any permanent government unless the monarchy is abolished.