Nepal army officer accused of torture in London court

LONDON (REUTERS) - A Nepali army officer was accused by a British prosecutor on Friday of torturing two men in 2005, during his country's civil war, in a rare use of laws that allow British courts to prosecute certain serious crimes wherever they took place.

Kumar Lama, 48, is on trial at London's Old Bailey court, charged with two counts of torture on Nepali citizens at an army barracks in Nepal.

He has pleaded not guilty.

If convicted, he will face a maximum penalty of life in prison.

It is only the second trial in Britain under laws that assert universal jurisdiction. In the first, Afghan national Faryadi Zardad was jailed for 20 years in 2005 for torture and hostage-taking.

At least 16,000 people were killed during Nepal's 1996-2006 civil conflict and both sides have been accused of human rights abuses, but calls for perpetrators to be brought to justice in Nepal have remained unanswered.

Lama was arrested in Britain in 2013, while on leave from a UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.

Lama was the company commander at a Nepali army barracks in 2005 when Janak Raut and Karam Hussain were detained on suspicion of being part of a Maoist insurgency.

The men allege they were severely beaten on Lama's orders, and threatened with death if they did not confess.

Hussain alleges his hands were burnt with cigarettes, while Raut says he was suspended upside down while hot water was poured down his nose, and that a parrot was allowed to peck him until he bled.

"Violence towards those that the colonel wanted questioned was inflicted... with his say so and with him fully aware that it was being done," prosecutor Bobbie Cheema told the jury.

"He was a determined and committed army officer focused on the task in hand at that time, and that was the suppression of the Maoist rebellion through all means available," she said.

Cheema told the jury that victims of human rights abuses were too afraid to seek redress in Nepal.

"Those who perpetrated torture did so with impunity... In fact, not a single criminal prosecution of an alleged perpetrator of torture has taken place in any civilian court in Nepal," she said.

The jury was told that Lama concedes that Raut and Hussain were prisoners at Gorusinghe barracks while he was in charge, and that they may have been mistreated there.

However, he denies that he participated in, ordered or condoned any torture of detainees, and he also challenges the extent of the mistreatment both men allege.

Raut, who had no connection with the Maoist insurgency, and Hussain, who was a Maoist sympathiser, are both scheduled to give evidence at Lama's trial.