A court in Nepal is all set to give its verdict in the case involving 36 villagers who are charged with a series of gruesome murders.
The defendants make up nearly all the male population of the tiny village of Nar, 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) high in the Himalayas, where the bodies of seven men who disappeared after going to hunt for the plant were found in 2009.
The 36 all deny murder and say the victims, who were from outside the village, died accidentally when a fight broke out over the right to hunt for the rare parasitic plant, Yarchagumba.
The yellowy-brown fungus, which grows on the larva of a species of moth, is found in only a few parts of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau above 3,500 metres.
Known for its aphrodisiac qualities, Yarchagumba attracts a high price on the international market and is in particular demand in China, where a kilogram can fetch tens of thousands of dollars.
It is a major source of income for families in many remote Himalayan communities, which fiercely protect the valuable plant from outsiders.
Battles over Yarchagumba have broken out in the past, but have been resolved within communities that have traditionally operated outside the national judicial system because of their remoteness and cultural traditions.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the Yarchagumba case "epitomises the impact of the social changes that are going on in the far flung and previously inaccessible rural areas of Nepal."
The valley where the victims went missing in June 2009 is among the most remote parts of Nepal, and it was several weeks before authorities learned of the extraordinary story of their deaths.
Local authorities say police had to walk for days to reach the area, where they discovered the bodies of the seven men.
Police initially arrested the entire village, but later released the women and children. Most of the men were charged with murder and held in the district capital, which can only be reached on foot and does not have its own judge.
The judge overseeing the case is from a neighbouring district and Wednesday will mark his first appearance in the court. Witness statements have been transcribed by a registrar and sent to him.
Rights groups including the OHCHR have expressed their concerns about the fairness of the trial and Krishna Thapa, the sole defence lawyer in the case, told AFP he had not even been allowed to speak to the defendants.
"The villagers have had no opportunity to give their side of the story. They do not speak Nepalese and they do not understand what is happening," he said.
"The defendants are not going to get justice. I don't know what this will lead to -- this is a whole village we are talking about."
Nepal's Himalayan communities are ethnically closer to Tibetans than to their compatriots, speak their own language and practise Buddhism rather than Hinduism, the predominant religion of Nepal.
They have historically had little contact with Nepal's state institutions and most are overseen by village leaders who settle local disputes. In the past, even murders have gone unprosecuted by the judiciary.
Sociology professor Krishna B Bhattachan said the defendants might not even understand why they were being prosecuted.
"They grow up in isolation, so nothing matters more than their own village," he told AFP. "If there is a problem, they go to their village chief, not to the police station or a court.
"The fact that the whole village was implicated at first just proves how tight-knit and protected the community is -- this was a shared act, and there is no individual guilt."
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