"I Speak Nothing but the Truth, Your Honour"

The shortcomings of Nepal's criminal trials and lack of cross-examination are on full display in the fake refugee case

The Bhutanese refugee scam passed the first phase of the trial in court vis-a-vis the bail hearing. All suspects pleaded not guilty to varying charges of cheating, organised crime, forgery and treason.

Sixteen suspects including former Deputy Prime Minister Top Bahadur Rayamajhi and his son Sandeep Rayamajhi, former Home Minister Balkrishna Khand, Ministry of Home Affairs Secretary Tek Narayan Pande, former security adviser to the Home Minister Indrajeet Rai and Bhutanese refugee leader Teknath Rizal took the stand at the Kathmandu District Court. They explained how they are not involved in this crime. Rizal stunned the court with his final accusation that Khand, Rayamajhi and Pande were criminals.

No one was cross-examined. 

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Cross-examination is a process of questioning a suspect or witness when they speak in court. The opposing lawyer cross-questions the person on the stand to test the tenacity of their account by exposing weaknesses in their statement. Lawyers might also verify certain facts through it.

Professor John H Wignmore, considered an authority on evidence law, famously wrote that cross-examination is ‘the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth’ as it forces people to answer questions they may not wish to. At the hands of skilled trial lawyers, it can expose lies methodically. Remember how American actress Amber Heard’s story unravelled once Johnny Depp’s lawyer cross-examined her. 

In the Nepali trial, suspects almost always testify at the court. The Constitution grants them a right to silence but there is no need for most to exercise this right as they are not subject to any cross-examination. 

Laws on criminal procedure state that the suspect should be questioned by the court. The legislature has not stipulated whether the authority to question lies with the presiding judge or with another court staff. Principles of fair trial would dictate that as suspects give evidence it should be done in front of a judge. 

In our practice of law, suspects are questioned by the administrative staff of the court. The judge is often absent when suspects record their testimony. Except in cases like the fake Bhutanese refugee case where the rich and powerful are on trial. For this case, Judge Prem Prasad Neupane listened to the testimony of all 16 suspects.

When suspects testify, they answer broad queries put to them by the court. Questioning resonates with how qualitative researchers investigate a participant’s story rather than grilling in a court of law.

One can speculate whether things would be different if the judges asked the questions as they do in many European countries. However, the idea of judges leading the questioning of suspects would be problematic under Nepal’s trial system.

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Last year, in a bid to mitigate corruption, cases started being allocated through the lottery to each judge. Each morning around 10:30AM judges are allocated cases they must hear for the day. The case hearings start at around 11AM. Judges have no time to study the case beforehand.

This is a contrast to trials in European countries where judges are actively involved in investigation and truth-seeking. Without serious study of the case, Nepali judges cannot realistically engage in a line of questioning that would help discern the truth from lies. Court administrators who tend to question the suspects are not trained in trial practice or interviewing.

Moreover, what makes the Nepali criminal trial further problematic is the fact that only the suspect evades cross-examination. If a victim of a crime or a witness is put on the stand they are cross-examined.

Nepali evidence law is clear. Only answers that are obtained through cross-examination can be admitted as evidence in a trial. There is no exemption for the suspect in the Evidence Act (1974). However, the Criminal Procedure Code (2017) signals an inconsistency with the Evidence Act by stipulating that the court, as opposed to lawyers, should question the suspect. Suspects’ answers untouched by cross-examination are then admitted as evidence.

There is an argument put forth by some lawyers and judges that the function of the suspect’s testimony in court is to verify what they said when interviewed by the police. As part of police investigations, suspects are interviewed by the police as soon as they are arrested. Laws of criminal procedure stipulate that suspects need to be interviewed by the police in the presence of the prosecutor. It is only after the police investigation is completed that suspects are formally charged for their crimes by prosecutors and presented to testify in court.

The idea is lofty yet far from practice. Suspects in most cases tend to confess to the police. In court they completely change their story, state that the police used coercion to force them to confess and plead innocence.

For example, in the hit-and-run case of Prithvi Bahadur Malla, in the police interview, Malla confessed that as a result of partying and sleep deprivation he briefly dosed off while driving and ended up hitting the pedestrian. At court he stated that the steering wheel of his car locked and the vehicle swung into the wrong lane hitting the pedestrian. Judge Surya Prasad Adhikari admitted his testimony to the court (as opposed to the police) as evidence. When stories change so dramatically there is nothing a suspect will verify off of their own accord. 

Prosecutors have the burden to build the case and prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. They are busy people with an immensely high workload. Overseeing police interviewing at the arrest phase to have it thrown out by judges when the suspects change their story in court is a waste of their time.

If the idea is to refrain police from torturing people into confessing by having prosecutors present in interviewing, then we might consider videotaping police interviews. This way judges can verify any reports of torture. After all, there are accounts of prosecutors who have turned a blind eye to police torture.

Police interviews and cross-examination by lawyers require the use of different skills and techniques. Lawyers should be allowed to build cases inside courtrooms. If suspects wish to speak their truth they deserve the audience of a judge.

At the same time, the victim of a crime deserves to have the suspect’s account tested and verified by cross-questioning instead of being treated akin to an account of truth.

Aastha Dahal is a Kathmandu-based lawyer with a PhD in criminology from the University of Cambridge.

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