Christians' confidence in the judiciary in Nepal was shattered after a court sentenced a 63-year-old pastor to 10 years in prison on rape accusations the complainant later renounced, church leaders said.
Pastor Govinda Prasad Dhakal, 63, was sentenced on June 7 upon conviction for "frequently raping a minor" he and his wife had adopted in 2016. Christian leaders and his family roundly refute the allegation, citing an attempt by the alleged victim's family to extort money from him with a false accusation.
"We are not happy to see the verdict, because everything was pre-decided," Tanka Subedi, chair of the Religious Liberty Forum Nepal (RLFN), told Morning Star News.
The complainant, the now-12-year-old girl's mother, confessed before the court that she had fabricated the rape story in a fit of anger over the pastor's unwillingness to pay the girl's school fees after he returned the child to her custody, a source present in the courtroom said. Authorities arrested Pastor Dhakal on Dec. 12, 2017, based on the mother's initial statement.
Prabhushanta Dhakal, Pastor Dhakal's younger son, was a witness to the courtroom proceedings. He said the mother expressed remorse, saying she never thought the pastor would end up in jail.
"The girl's mother in the court confessed, 'I was angry, but now I understand that I must not harm this religious person...I am sorry,'" Prabhushanta Dhakal told Morning Star News.
The pastor's family and Christian leaders said they were shocked that, despite her confession and other documentary evidence, the court failed to relent in its determination to convict Pastor Dhakal. Because the alleged victim initially said, under pressure from a Hindu woman who opposes Christianity, that the pastor raped her, the court has the liberty to ignore the mother's retraction and other evidence, Prabhushanta Dhakal said.
"Despite the mother's recorded confession, the court did not take cognizance of her statement, nor did the court take action against her for her initial fabricated statements that she had given in the presence of the judges," pastor B.P. Khanal, head of The Lord's Assembly and a social activist, told Morning Star News. "How could the honorable judge allow this and still go ahead and pronounce 10 years of imprisonment on an innocent person?"
Pastor Dhakal was also fined 2,000 Nepalese rupees (US$18).
"We are forced to believe that the judge passed an unfair judgment because Govinda is a Christian, otherwise there was no other reason for such a verdict, especially when the accusers themselves had confessed before the court that they were hoping to make a huge amount of money by putting a false charge against Govinda," Subedi of the RLFN said. "Secondly, we are led to believe that he was not given a clean chit due to our stand of 'no bribing.'"
It was evident that the court was biased and convicted Pastor Dhakal because he is a Christian leader, Khanal said. The medical report of the alleged rape victim presented in court favored the pastor, he added. Prabhushanta Dhakal said the medical report stated that she had her "hymen ruptured" some years ago. "How many years ago, medical sciences cannot specify," he said.
Another girl adopted by the couple, 15-year-old Amrita, who has been living with the Dhakal family the past five years, told the court that the family has treated her well. The oldest of the family's adopted children, Amrita told the court that Pastor Dhakal never misbehaved with her, and that she never saw him misbehave with other girls.
Two other adopted girls living with the Dhakal family, Sonia, 13, and Mithu Maya, 14, gave statements against the pastor under pressure from an influential Hindu woman, according to Prabhushanta Dhakal and Khanal. They said that Hindu woman, Meena Kharel, a member of a child welfare committee who operates an orphanage, opposes Christianity.
Prabhushanta Dhakal said Kharel pressured the alleged victim and her mother into accusing the pastor of rape.
Amrita disclosed to Khanal how Kharel pressured her, telling her to repeat certain words in the courtroom, Khanal said.
Kharel's opposition to Christianity was heightened when she lost an election for deputy mayor of Bharatpur to a Christian candidate, Prabhushanta Dhakal said.
He appealed the verdict of the lower court, filing a petition in the Makwanpur High Court on July 10.
Initially a government employee, Pastor Dhakal has worked as an evangelist since 2004 and has also been involved in Bible distribution, church planting, supporting pastors and working with at-risk children and orphans. He is the pastor of Handikhola Church in Manahari-3 Makawanpur.
Pastor Dhakal served as pastor to the church for more than 11 years. He was living with his wife, Saraswoti, 57, and four adopted children before the charges against him were filed. All four of the adopted children have been sent back to their respective homes, and "their schooling has been stopped in the middle of the year, except for Amrita, who has been taken into the house of a lady pastor in Kathmandu," Prabhushanta Dhakal said sadly.
The alleged victim's mother and maternal uncle, a police constable, threatened Pastor Dhakal and demanded money from him after he sent the alleged victim, whose name is withheld, back to her mother in December due to the girl's anti-social behavior.
Citing Saraswoti, Khanal said the girl's family made phone calls to Pastor Dhakal in 2017 initially demanding 20,000 rupees (US$177) for her schooling, which had been discontinued when she was sent back home. When the pastor refused, they threatened him, saying they would teach him a lesson of a lifetime, Saraswoti said.
"Her uncle said, 'I know how to trap you,'' Saraswoti told Morning Star News.
Gradually the extortion demand increased to 7,000,000 rupees (US$62,050), said Prabhushanta Dhakal.
"First they demanded 20,000 for enrolling her in a school. Then they made this fabricated story of rape and demanded 70 lakh rupees from my father," he said. "They thought that my father is a very rich man, and he can give whatever they demand."
When the pastor refused to pay them anything, the girl's mother and uncle filed the rape case against him on Dec. 12, three months after she was sent back home, he said.
"'You people should come with a big bag of 70 lakh rupees, then we will free your father,' her uncle told me," said Prabhushanta Dhakal, who added that he also felt harassed when a worker in the district attorney general's office demanded a bribe of 400,000 rupees to dismiss the case.
Well known for their generosity, the couple adopted the alleged rape victim, an impoverished Dalit, in 2016.
"For about six years my father has been sheltering children in our house, helping to educate them and providing for their needs," Prabhushanta Dhakal said.
The alleged victim lost her father five years ago, and since then the family has been living in poverty in Surkhet. When Pastor Dhakal learned of the conditions in which they were living from a pastor friend, his compassionate heart drove him to bring her to his home to give her education and a secure future, his son said. They enrolled her in the same school as Amrita.
The couple was not aware that she had behavioural issues, refusing to mix or cooperate with other children and threatening and troubling them enough that the couple began to receive complaints from other parents, Prabhushanta Dhakal said. After trying to help the girl improve her behavior for one and a half years, the pastor sent her back to her mother on Sept. 9, 2017.
They also did not know that the girl's family had received settlements in prior cases of alleged rape. She was allegedly raped on two separate occasions, once by a 16-year-old boy and, a few years ago, by an 18-year-old, Khanal said.
"At the age of 9, she was raped by a boy who was rich and influential," he said. "The case was dismissed after an out-of-court settlement was done between the two families. Subsequently they gave money to the mother and the case was dismissed."
Prabhushanta Dhakal said the family did not know about these cases until after the pastor was charged.
"Neither did her mother reveal it to us until they used the same tactics on my father, accusing him of raping her," he said.
'Injustice for Doing Good'
Khanal said his visits to Pastor Dhakal in jail in Chitwan jail have shown him to be joyful and well-respected by other inmates.
"He said he is praying and is hopeful that God will do justice," Khanal said.
Saraswoti and Pastor Dhakal have two sons of their own, 33 and 31, who are married, and three grandchildren.
Saraswoti said she feels they are "facing injustice for doing good."