56-year-old Dil Bahadur Chhetri Neopani with students

The curious case of Dil Bahadur Chhetri Neopani

One main evidence used to convict 56-year-old Dil Bahadur Chhetri Neopani (DB Chhetri), former Officiating Principal of Gosarling School, was his written statement to the police on 6 November 2019 on the day of his arrest.

He read out the same statement to the police in an on-camera recording, which became an additional evidence.

The other key evidence was the statement of all the ten school children taken by the local police and also by the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC). Dil Bahadhur’s fate was effectively sealed in the Tsirang Dzongkhag Court when his confession tallied with the statement of the children given earlier.

4 statements and leading DB on?

However, DB Chhetri’s son, Jit Kumar Neopani said that before his father came to Thimphu he had a talk with his father who told him, in detail, about the circumstances around that written statement and the on-camera confession, and even gave it to him in writing.

DB Chhetri then repeated the same sequence of events around that statement in the High Court as well.

Jit Kumar said his father was made to give a written statement in the police station by the former Tsirang Officer Commanding (OC) Chhaten.

“My father first wrote a statement where he did not admit guilt, and the OC crumpled the statement up and threw it in the dustbin asking him to write it again, saying it does not match with what the students said. My father, wrote a second and third one, and again the OC again threw them in the dustbin saying it does not match what the students said,” said Jit Kumar.

He said, “After the third statement was thrown away, the OC scolded my father a lot and told him that if his statement does not match that of the students then it will be very difficult to solve the case.”

Jit said his father then asked the OC what the children said and then he wrote that in the statement.

Jit then said that before the video recording his father was made to rehearse a couple of times.

The recording was then made where DB Chhetri repeated his statement admitting his guilt and answered a couple more questions from the police.

Jit said soon after his father suffered from breathing difficulties, and he was taken to the Tsirang Hospital.

The next day, the police asked him to write a statement again, and this time DB Chhetri declined to accept guilt.

Both the statements were presented to the Tsirang Dzongkhag Court. Jit asked how can two statements be given to a court.

OC denies allegations

The former Tsirang OC Chhaten, who is currently based in Paro, first declined to talk about the incident, saying the Courts have already ruled on this, but only agreed to talk after the paper sought permission from the Police Headquarters.

The OC initially declined to share the details on the number of statements DB Chhetri wrote, and he only said that proper procedure was followed.

However, when the reporter kept asking if he had thrown away three of the statements of DB Chhetri not admitting guilt and told him that it will be ‘very difficult to solve the case’ if DB’s statement did not match that of the children’s, the OC said that the allegations are baseless, and only one statement was written on that day followed by another one the next day.

The OC said that there was even a witness from the Dzongkhag who signed the document along with DB Chhetri.

The witness was the procurement officer. When the paper contacted him, the procurement officer said that he was not there from the beginning when DB was brought in, but when he was called, he saw the OC sitting opposite to DB explaining to him that he is not being forced to write the statement. He said he was also there as a witness during the video recording session. 

4 statements not mentioned in Dzongkhag Court

However, DB Chhetri or his lawyer Ritu Raj did not mention the allegation about being forced to write the statement four times by the OC to the Tsirang Dzongkhag Court, though later after around two hearings DB Chhetri’s lawyer said the confession was taken under duress, and is not admissible in court. 

Ritu said that the matter of the four statements did not come up in court.

Acceptance during Remand hearing and refuting statement

According to a source, one more thing that worked against DB Chhetri was that when he was presented to the Dzongkhag court for the Remand hearing by the RBP, he had said in Lhotsampkha that he had made a mistake and it would not happen again. This was seen by the court as an admission of guilt.

The source said that if DB Chhetri, in his first appearance in the court, had alleged a forced confession and denied his statement then it would have counted for something, but he did not refute his statement until around the third hearing.

The source also said that on the allegations of forced confession during the initial remand of DB Chhetri, the court officials met him around four times, as part of court procedure, to enquire on his health, and at that time, he did not bring up any forced confession.

His lawyer Ritu said that the self-incriminating confession before the police should not have been accepted in the court as, internationally, courts do not accept it.

“During the first time in the hearing, he was in a very nervous state and even the prosecutor noted that he was not in a fit state,” said Ritu.

Examining the Statements  of the 10 children

The other main evidence that led to the conviction of DB Chhetri was the statement of the 10 children, studying in classes 2 and 3 in November 2019, saying they were pinched in their private parts and that other things were done to them.

The 10 parents of the children signed on a written statement to the court stating that DB Chhetri had not molested their children, and in fact, their children were coached by the teacher Ugyen Zangmo to say so.

The court did not accept the parents’ statement on the basis that the parents were not there at the moment when the crime was alleged, and they cannot claim ownership and speak for their children.

A source said that what also did not help was that some parents who signed on the statement to the police claimed they did not sign in court.

The reporter contacted 7 of the 10 parents, and all of them uniformly said that their children were not molested by DB Chhetri.

They said they knew this as the children later told the parents that a day or two before the police came, Ugyen Zangmo had taken the kids to a room and told them about ‘good touch and bad touch’ and that the students should say DB Chhetri touched them in the private parts to the police, and if they don’t then the police will take away their parents and possibly them too. 

The paper asked them if they had been approached by DB Chhetri’s family members to say so, if there was pressure on them from the local community, or if they wanted to avoid any controversy or shame for their children, but the parents in separate interviews all denied such pressures.

They said that what moved them to act was their anxiety that an innocent man was being framed by Ugyen Zangmo using their children.

One parent said DB Chhetri liked small kids, and he used to even drop her daughter home from school. Another parent said that the kids liked him, and he was popular with the people. 

The reporter asked three of the parents to immediately hand over the phones to their daughters which they did, and when the reporter asked the daughters (now in class 5 and 6) on if DB Chhetri had touched them inappropriately, they denied it.

The three children said that Ugyen Zangmo had asked them to say it to the police otherwise their parents would be taken away by the police.

While DB Chhetri, after withdrawing his confession, said he did pinch the children on their ear and hair as punishment.

When the reporter asked a child if DB Chhetri pinched them in other places like the ear or hair, but here, the child, perhaps in an overcorrection, said there was no pinching at all.

Some of the parents said that if they had found out that DB Chhetri had really touched their daughters inappropriately then they, themselves, would not have spared him. Some of the mothers said they questioned their daughters in detail, and it was clear to them that Ugyen Zangmo had coached them using fear tactics. The mothers said their daughters would not lie to them.

Another evidence submitted by the defence was a video clip of the children denying they were molested. However, a source said the court disregarded it, as it asked leading questions, seemed to have been prepared in advance, and the video actually talks of DB Chhetri kissing students.

The OC

A member from the defence side alleged that the entire crux of the issue lay with how the investigation was done by the OC. He said if the OC had really done a thorough investigation then the case would not even be there.

The OC, however, said that all proper and due procedures were followed, which was held up in the District, High Court and Supreme Court, and if the defence had any issues they should have brought it up in the courts.

Some people from Gosarling said that the OC and Ugyen Zangmo were friendly, but the OC denied this allegation saying it, too, is baseless saying he has no relation with Ugyen. He said going by what people are saying, an OC in a remote place and small society should stay away from everybody.

A person said to verify such claims the call records of Ugyen and the OC should be looked into.

One parent said that on the day the students’ statements were being collected, only three parents were present, and of the three, only two put their initials. She said a third signature was collected later from the house of another parent.

The parent who did not sign said her daughter was in a good condition so she did not sign. The three who signed later claimed they were not adequately aware of what was going on.

The OC said that proper process was followed in collecting the statements of the children. He said after an official complaint from the NCWC focal officer, they first got permission from the Dzongkhag and the NCWC female focal officer joined them along with class teachers and some parents, and it was the NCWC female focal officer who asked the kids the questions. The OC said he was joined by an Investigation Officer junior to him.

Tsirang Dzongkhag Court’s Judicial Investigation

With charges of forced confession and other allegations, the Tsirang Dzongkhag Court also conducted its own judicial investigation.

Around a year and a half after DB Chhetri’s arrest in 2019, and by when the parents had already submitted a letter exonerating him, the Tsirang court on 19 April 2021 first called all the children to court, in an informal half-day session with the female judge, and to make them feel comfortable they were shown cartoons, snacks and lunch was served and as they talked informally, some kids talked about other kids being kissed and pinched by DB Chettri.

The judge then called the kids with their parents, a teacher and others the next day on 20 April 2021.

A source said that the kids seemed to be uncomfortable with the parents, and one of them was even crying. Some kids said they were being blamed for the jailing of the principal. In reply to Drangpon’s questions, some students denied that DB Chhetri did anything. However, one said she saw the DB Chettri kissing some friend of hers, another said she comes second in class and there is no reason to pinch her but she gets pinched, one said he would do it (pinch) to the boys on the back, another said he would rub his beard on their chin, and a girl said she was pinched below the kira without specifying the place.

The children told the judge that they were all scared with  Madam Ugyen as she was very strict and she used to beat them too, and she had told them to tell things honestly.

A source said this was a crucial hearing, and if the kids had clearly said that Madam Ugyen had coached them to say they were pinched in their private parts, then the court could have relooked at things, but in that session there was no such statement from the children, apart from saying that she was scary and strict and she told them to say the truth.

The source said that the kids being nervous in the court was interpreted by the court as something was wrong.

However, a defence team member said that when even adults get intimidated in a court setting, it is understandable for children to get nervous.

On why the District Court did not call Ugyen Zangmo and another teacher Tshering Tobgay who had argued against DB Chettri using racist language, a source said that the defence lawyer had not taken the chance to call witnesses when the court asked him.

Ugyen says she heard but did not see

In the High Court a different defence lawyer asked for the presence of Ugyen Zangmo and Tshering Tobgay.

Ugyen Zangmo, in her written statement to the High Court, said that while she had heard about DB Chettri molesting children, but had never seen it with her own eyes.

Tshering Tobgay said he was not aware about any molestation until the day the police came.

Ugyen and DB’s history

Jit said that Ugyen Zangmo had a lot of reasons to not be happy with his father. He said Ugyen had cut a student’s hair very short with scissors, and when the mother came to enquire, it got ugly and  his father forwarded the matter to the Gup, who gave it to the police resulting in a court case.

He said there was another instance where she beat a student, and a complaint was lodged but the matter was settled internally.

He said Ugyen used to be absent from school, and the tipping point was when his father let her know that her contract would not be renewed. He said in front of other staff,  she even assaulted his father on 1 April 2018.

A mysterious security official

Jit said that while many names have come out in the case, he alleged there remains a key security official (not the RBP) who played an important behind the scenes role in the issue.

The father of the son whose hair was cut said that when he went to the police station to talk about his son’s case and to complain against Ugyen Zangmo, that security officer (who is not from the police station) was there and asked to see the father’s phone and gave it back only after examining its contents.

14+ evidences and questions

A member of the defence team said DB was convicted with 14 pieces of evidence which are the statement of the 10 children, DB’s two statements and the two video recordings of it.

However, a source said that what also worked against DB was his acceptance in the District Court during the Remand Hearing, and also the hearing with the kids and their parents.

A defence team member questioned the 10 statements on why was it was never examined that Ugyen’s name kept coming up in most of the children’s statement to the police.

Lawyer Ritu said that in a criminal case a person should be convicted, only once the case is proved beyond a reasonable doubt, which he claimed was not proven with the case.

Ugyen threatens legal action

Ugyen Zangmo said that she would not like to comment on the case or the allegations given the Supreme Court verdict, but she said she has taken screen shots of people making all kinds of comments about her and uploading her picture, and she would be submitting it to the Thimphu police on Monday for defamation.

She said she did the same thing in Tsirang when the case first came up there, and people were commenting on social media.

One allegation is that the parent’s petition never made it to the high court, but the reporter verified that it did reach the High Court.

The case started in 19 December 2019 and on 19 July 2021, DB was convicted by the District Court. The High Court convicted him in 30 November 2021 and the Supreme Court in 4 April 2022.

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