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Afghanistan: HRW Urges Karzai To Set Up War Crimes Court

Afghan fighters after the fall of Kabul in 2001 (file photo) Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Afghan President Hamid Karzai on 7 July to set up a special court to try people accused of past war crimes, including some who are serving in his government. The call comes in a report titled "Blood-Stained Hands: Past Atrocities In Kabul And Afghanistan's Legacy Of Impunity." The report documents war crimes and human rights abuses from April 1992 to March 1993. During the time covered by the report whole sections of Kabul were reduced to rubble by fighting between Afghan factions. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed and wounded, and at least half a million people were displaced. HRW says bringing those responsible to justice is a key step for creating stability in Afghanistan.

Prague, 7 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In its report based on two years of research, Human Rights Watch names several Afghan officials implicated in war crimes and human rights abuses during the early 1990s.

They include Abdul Rashid Dostum who is currently Chief of Army Staff in the Defense Ministry; Karim Khalili, who is now one of Afghanistan's two vice presidents; and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an Islamist commander who currently advises President Karzai and reportedly has major power over the Afghan judiciary.

Those named also include former Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Islamic party leader Gulbudin Hekmatyar, who is currently at large.

Brad Adams is the executive director of the Asia division of HRW. He says the Afghan officials cited in the report were members of different faction which committed extensive human rights abuses while fighting for power following the collapse of the Soviet-backed government in Kabul in 1992.

"In the year that we look at, the various factions that were trying to take power after the Soviets left started shelling each other in Kabul, they started attacking members of the civilian population that were apparently allied to these factions, they were killing them, they were abducting them, there was lots of sexual violence. Our report shows that even in the fog of war, even in chaos, one can still pinpoint responsibility," Adams said.

The 133 page HRW report is based on more than 150 interviews with witnesses, survivors, government officials, and combatants.

The report says several other commanders implicated in past war crimes are now candidates for parliament or are serving in the police and military. According to the human rights group, others are serving in important security and judicial posts.

HRW has urged the Afghan government and international community to prioritize efforts to hold past perpetrators accountable for their crimes by creating a special court to try offenders.

As an immediate first step, HRW recommends that the Afghan government implement a vetting mechanism to sideline past abusers from the government

A survey released in January by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) showed that the majority of the respondents believe that bringing human rights violators to justice will bolster peace stability and justice.

The poll also showed that most Afghans see themselves as victims of war crimes. Many are of the opinion that continued impunity has given the perpetrators the opportunity to commit further abuses with no fear of prosecution.

Following the release of the poll the AIHRC, the UN and the EU called on the Afghan government to do more to bring war criminals to justice.

But Afghan President Hamid Karzai has adopted a conciliatory approach of giving government posts to former commanders and warlords. Karzai has also offered amnesty to former Taliban members who were not involved in human rights abuses.

Rangin Dadfar Sepanta is an advisor to President Karzai. He says the Afghan government supports the idea of an accountability process -- but in the long term.

"For us what is important is the issue of justice and national reconciliation so that we can -- through some truth finding commission like in South Africa, Mexico and East Timor, by using their experiences -- find out which persons were responsible and why wide-spread human rights abuses occurred. What is today important in Afghanistan is how we can make this fragile peace last and I accept the HRW view that peace without justice has no meaning but what is important is the issue of amnesty should be in the center of all our policies because we are moving toward national reconciliation," Sepanta said.

But Brad Adams of HRW believes that if Afghanistan doesn't begin a process of addressing its bloody history now, the past may repeat itself.

"They have to take some actions or they might lose credibility, second the risk is that while people are being quiet now -- a lot of people who are involved in these past crimes -- they are quiet because they are under a lot of pressure and scrutiny but that scrutiny is going to decrease over time and the question is will the international community leave a time bomb in its wake when it pulls out of Afghanistan and will you see these people start fighting for power again and there isn't really a good reason to think that they won't; their desire to destroy their enemies remain, they still commit massive human rights abuses around the country today," Adams said.

The international human rights group says renewed respect for human rights and the rule of law can help to create sustainable stability in Afghanistan.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.