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Afghanistan: First War-Crimes Trial In 25 Years Begins

Assadullah Sarwari in court on 26 December (epa) A former Afghan intelligence chief has gone on trial in Kabul on charges of torture and war crimes connected to killings during the country's former communist government. Assadullah Sarwari has been in detention in Afghanistan since 1992, when mujahedin factions overthrew the Soviet-backed communist regime. Appearing before the National Security Court, Sarwari said his incarceration has been illegal and denied any involvement in war crimes. Observers say Sarwari's trial could mark a turning point as Afghanistan tries to come to grips with its bloody past.

Prague, 27 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The trial of Assadullah Sarwari is the first war-crimes trial to be held in Afghanistan after 25 years of war.

Sarwari headed the country’s intelligence department in 1978 under President Nur Mohammad Taraki, Afghanistan's first communist ruler. Sarwari was arrested in 1992 and accused of ordering the mass arrest and execution of hundreds of people who opposed the communist government. He has been in custody ever since.

During the first day of his trial yesterday, Sarwari denied all the charges against him and maintained his innocence.

"I and the intelligence organization were very active in providing security for our citizens, and we discovered more than 300 plots, and [as a result] the lives of thousands of citizens were saved. I believe that in the past I worked for the benefit of my country and my people," Sarwari said.

Sarwari could be sentenced to death if found guilty. His trial is due to resume in mid-January.

The proceedings against Sarwari began shortly after President Hamid Karzai’s government approved a plan to investigate allegations of human rights abuses committed during the country's bloody past.

Nader Nadery, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, said the Sarwari trial is significant in that in shows that a culture of impunity may be ending in Afghanistan. He said the trial shows the commitment of the Afghan government to justice.

"Holding a trial that is related to war crimes and crimes against humanity and past human rights abuses can be considered as the beginning of a process of bringing justice to Afghanistan. So from this regard, it is very important. And it also shows a commitment by the Afghan government that there will be no amnesty for crimes against humanity and war crimes," Nadery said.

The Sarwari trial follows two similar trials held in Western Europe earlier this year. In October, a court in The Hague jailed two former senior police officials from Afghanistan’s former communist regime to nine and 12 years in prison after they were convicted of torture and war crimes. In July, a former Afghan warlord convicted of a campaign of torture and hostage taking in his homeland was sentenced in Great Britain to 20 years in prison.

Nadery believes Afghanistan must change its laws and rebuild its justice system in order to better prosecute human rights abuses. He said addressing the abuses and violence of the past will help build confidence and trust among Afghan citizens.

"[The Afghan people] believe that justice can be achieved in different ways -- either by removing human-rights violators from government positions and also prosecution of their crimes," Nadery said. "The trial of Sarwari and measures for bringing justice help in increasing people’s trust in the government and in democratic institutions that are being formed. But this can only be effective if people are not just used as scapegoats. Weak people should not be used for political purposes. There should be a transparent process based on principles of fair trials. Every person who has committed war crimes should face justice."

Some former militia commanders and warlords accused of past atrocities in Afghanistan hold positions in the current government. They include Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is currently chief of staff of the army in the Defense Ministry and Karim Khalili, who is one of Afghanistan's two vice presidents. Several others implicated in abuses, such as Abd al-Rab al-Rasul Sayyaf, were elected to parliament in September elections.

Human Rights Watch has urged Karzai to set up a special court to try people accused of past war crimes, including those who are serving in his government.

Last week, a conference on transitional justice in Afghanistan demanded that people implicated in rights abuses be removed from the government and face possible prosecution.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah denied that human-rights violators hold positions in the government, however, and said only the courts can decide who has been involved in past abuses. He warned that the country had to avoid becoming trapped in a "limited circle of revenge."

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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.