… parents say they would not accept compensation
Choki Wangmo and Tshering Palden
The parents of the 10 children involved in the case in 2019 are not only refusing the compensation of Nu 90,000 but are also alleging that the former teacher was wrongly accused.
The students who are now in classes V and VI allege that they were forced to make false statements against Dil Bahadur Chhetri Neopani (DB Chhetri) by a teacher, Ugyen Zangmo, from the same school who taught them about “good touch” and “bad touch”.
“We agreed to her as she was our teacher,” a student said, adding that they now realise they were wrong.
The Supreme Court last week sentenced the 56-year-old teacher, DB Chhetri Neopani to 10 years and four months in prison for molesting 10 students at his school in Tsirang.
DB Chhetri was serving as an officiating principal in one of the schools in Tsirang when he was arrested after police and the dzongkhag’s child protection unit received a complaint about molestation and harassment in 2019.
In July last year, Tsirang dzongkhag court found DB Chhetri Neopani guilty of a fourth-degree felony and sentenced him to 30 years in prison. The court also ordered him to pay a compensation of Nu 90,000 to each of his 10 victims.
From November 2019 to December 2020 the case was handled by a different judge. A new judge took over the case in January 2021.
According to the judgment, he was guilty of touching them inappropriately.
He appealed to the High Court and in November last year, it partially overturned the lower court’s ruling and sentenced him to a concurrent prison term of 10 years and six months by increasing his offence from fourth degree to second-degree felony. The court also asked him to compensate the victims.
Parents of the children say
The parents allege that using fear and compulsion, the statements were taken from class II and III children without consent from parents by the officials concerned. “My daughter came home crying because she was told that if she didn’t sign on the statement, her parents would be imprisoned,” one alleged.
A parent said that out of 10 parents, only three of them signed a statement confirming molestation and harassment by the teacher, and despite repeated appeals to the agencies to withdraw the case, their appeals were not considered. “Three of them can’t speak on behalf of the 10 parents.”
A mother said that those who signed the statement were unaware of the case. She said that the children did not complain about molestation and harassment at home. “Earlier DB Chhetri told us, parents, not to mind the punishments as he pulled ears and pinched children’s knees when they fell asleep during lessons.”
Another parent said that she couldn’t attend the meeting due to domestic problems when the case first surfaced. She said that she knew the teacher well for years as he was her daughter’s class teacher since pre-primary. She said that she had conversations with her daughter about the molestation and asked for the truth. “She confessed that she was forced to lie by the madam.”
In a letter that was signed by the 10 parents in December 2019, they refuted the findings on four points and appealed to the dzongkhag court. They requested that the children be left out of the matter to avoid mental torture as it was a disagreement among school staff that turned sour and used children as bait.
The parents said that they awaited calls and inquiries once the case reached the High Court and the Supreme Court with the hope that they would be able to share their side of the story.
The parents also alleged that the letter was not accepted by the court. However, the defence lawyer submitted a copy of the letter dated December 9, 2019 and it is in the 157-page judgment passed by the Tsirang dzongkhag court. As a court norm, when a case is appealed the entire file which includes all statements and documents submitted during the trait at the lower court is submitted to the higher court, in this case, the High Court. Kuensel confirmed from numerous sources that the letter was submitted to the High Court.
Another alleged that there were no medical documents proving molestation. According to the judgment, he alleged that the teacher molested and harassed children for only six months while working as an officiating principal, which he said, was illogical. “Harassments and molestations don’t begin and end in a set time period. If he was a serial molester, he will have a history in past schools.”
Locals and teachers say
According to some local residents, although DB Chhetri is from Tsholingkhar gewog, he was a dedicated civil servant who loved and cared for the locality’s children like his own.
One of the 10 children involved in the molestation case was DB Chhetri’s niece. A relative said that if showing affection to a child was considered molestation, it was scary and unjust. She said that he often pats children on the head and kissed them with affection, which is normal among family members.
One questioned the basis of the accusations. He said that there was no ground that the 10 particular children were handpicked by the teacher for molestation and it happened in front of the whole class. “He was a driven person who loved teaching. After superannuation, he had plans to serve for two years as a volunteer. The case was unfair.”
Some blamed DB Chhetri’s former lawyer. They alleged that the lawyer was not strong and did not even attend the court hearings. If the lawyer, they alleged, had done his job properly, there was a possibility that he could have been proven innocent.
DB Chhetri’s former colleagues in the school said that when they knew about the allegations through police and other officials, they were surprised and upset.
A teacher said that as a senior teacher, DB Chhetri was a resourceful mentor who was friendly with other colleagues and students. “Usually, when such cases emerge, it is first talked within the school management. There were no rumours and we did not observe any misunderstanding between DB Chhetri and Ugyen Zangmo.”
However, another teacher said that there was a brawl between DB Chhetri and Ugyen Zangmo in the staff room on April 1, 2018.
According to a teacher in the school, on November 1 in 2019, for the coronation celebration, DB Chhetri and a teacher in the same school, Tshering Tobgay already had arguments over the phone and the situation turned for the worst during the day. He said that under the influence of alcohol, Tshering Tobgay verbally abused DB Chhetri by calling names. “It nearly turned into a physical fight. By then, the students who were waiting for the celebration saw the event unfold and were scared.”
He said: “One time, I was in the IT room and saw Ugyen Zangmo talk with a student. She was asking if I abused her and the child said “no”. She then asked, “Who did?” and the child said, “DB Chhetri”.”
This incident, he said, was used as evidence later in the court.
The same teacher said that while he was teaching in class III, Ugyen Zangmo, with permission came into the class and announced to the children that police officials were visiting the school and they should tell the truth.
After the NCWC focal person lodged a complaint at the Tsirang police station, an investigation team visited the school to talk to the children. It comprised of an official from the dzongkhag administration, a focal person for NCWC, and a team of policewomen.
The school administration called parents to come for the meeting with the team on November 7, 2019 but only two turned up. Since the parents could not attend the meeting, two officials from the school acted as witnesses and guardians for the children.
While some parents questioned how the team could collect statements from minors without their consent, police sources said that as per the Child Care and Protection Act, parents’ consent was not required during the investigation as long as a guardian was present, which in this case were the teachers in the school.
According to the statement of the class teacher of Class II, who present during the meeting with the children as a witness, the lady official, who represented the dzongkhag administration, asked the children about their names and villages, and then she asked if they knew about good and bad touches. The children said Madam Ugyen Zangmo taught them before the midterm exam and some said she taught recently.
The official then asked if anyone in the school has made a bad touch on them, children said their officiating principal did. Some said he touched them as recent as last Monday and Tuesday (two or three days ago). The class teacher clarified that he was attending a meeting of principals then and was not in the school on those days.
Students gave their statements individually and in presence of an official or teacher from the school. The statements were read to them in front of the teacher.
The class teacher of Class three was Tshering Tobgay who had an argument with the accused a few days ago. He was not kept in the meeting since there was a conflict of interest issue. He was substituted by the school’s administration staff, who was a woman, as a witness.
Two women on the team submitted to the court that the children were not at ease initially after seeing the new faces. However, as the lady official from the dzongkhag asked them about the bad touch, they talked freely.
Within days after the investigation, a group of parents raised concerns about the statements collected from their children. They wrote to the gup and gave statements to the police, according to a source.
A source told Kuensel that the court would not consider the parents’ opinion when children have said he pinched and kissed them. “The victims mentioned the exact spots of the body parts which the teacher first specified in his confession. How can the parents’ submission take over the children’s claims? The children are the victims, not the parents.”
The legal practitioner said that the court applied the Parens Patriae doctrine which is the State in its capacity as provider of protection to those unable to care for themselves. It is basically used to protect children in their best interest and where the court is allowed to make a decision that is in the best interest of the child.
At the time of the preliminary inquiry, in presence of a representative from the police, who presented 10 counts against the defendant, he stated that he used to punish his students by slapping them when he was at his former school. However, he started pinching them as a means of punishment when he got to Gosarling School.
DB Chhetri confessed not only to the police but to the court as well during the remand hearing. He gave a written confession to the police. However, later on, he retracted the statement.
The defence lawyer also presented the court with DB Chhetri’s medical prescription from the Damphu hospital dated November 8, 2019 and claimed that he was not well to give statements.
The defence lawyer also submitted recordings of interviews with the children where they say the accused has not molested them. However, the court judgment states that one of them changed the statement in court.
Two relatives of DB Chhetri also wrote to the police headquarters for an investigation into the case.
Social media campaign
Soon after the arrest of the officiating principal in the children molestation case, numerous posts emerged on social media alleging that the vice-principal was framed by two colleagues who did not get along with him in the school. Both of them are moved out of Tsirang now.
The allegations resurfaced last week after the Supreme Court convicted the accused. Some anonymous accounts shared copies of the statements and the letter signed by the parents of the children and asked for reinvestigation of the case.
Meanwhile, a parent said that the children were further traumatised by baseless social media debates about the case.
What Ugyen Zangmo says
The former contract teacher who served in the school and also taught about “good touch” and “bad touch” to children said that the Supreme Court has already delivered the judgment and she had no comments about the case. “It may be illegal to talk about an issue which has been settled by the highest court of the country.”
Supreme Court says
An official from the Supreme Court said that those who wish to comment on the case have to first go through the judgments from the courts and understand them.