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Afghanistan: Amnesty Bill Could Threaten Faith In Democracy

Legacies of more than two decades of war (epa) February 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The lower chamber of Afghanistan's parliament passed a bill on January 31 that would grant immunity to all Afghans involved in war crimes during the last quarter century. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) warns that the legislation -- if approved by the upper chamber of parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai -- could mean failure for the process of national reconciliation.

The legislation comes despite calls by human rights groups for trials against alleged war criminals -- including some members of parliament and the government.

Some observers argue that the legislation could make ordinary Afghans lose faith in democracy.

By Politicians, For Politicians

The bill passed by Afghanistan's Wolesi Jirga grants immunity to all Afghans involved in war crimes during the last 25 years.

RFE/RL Afghanistan analyst Amin Tarzi predicts that the upper chamber of parliament will quickly pass the bill in its current form. Tarzi also thinks President Karzai will support the legislation.

"I do not believe that President Karzai will veto this law passed by the lower house," Tarzi says. "Karzai's plan is to offer an olive branch to the Taliban. When you look at the wording of this, it is not only [about] the alleged crimes of the people who are in parliament or the jihadi leaders. This is actually part of a broader effort to bring in the Taliban or anybody who is an opponent of the government. It actually is forward-looking. But short-term forward-looking, at the expense of human rights and democracy."

Mohammad Mohaqeq is a former mujahedin leader who has himself been accused of war crimes and is one of the key legislators behind the amnesty declaration. He disagrees with critics who say the law means the end of any hope for reconciliation.

Mohaqeq, who placed third in the 2004 presidential race, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the legislation was designed to bring peace and reconciliation to Afghan society.

"It mainly says that all of those who were involved in the 2 1/2 decades of war should be united together and join in the process of national reconciliation," Mohaqeq says.

Forgotten Victims

Adrian Edwards, the chief spokesman for UNAMA, tells RFE/RL that the law could have the opposite effect -- because it does not allow for a truthful debate that includes the voice of war crime victims.

"It's crucially important that the victims are not forgotten in this debate," Edwards says. "It really is up to the individual to decide whether they can forgive or not. And in that sense, for the [Afghan] National Assembly or any other body to suggest that there should be some blanket forgiveness -- we don't think that's the right way to go. We need to hear the voices of the victims, too. And if this process [of national reconciliation] is going to be successful, their voices will have to be equally heard."

Tarzi agrees that the bill could stifle any truthful debate.

"What is being forgotten right now is the vast majority of people on all sides who suffered. Afghans wanted some sort of a closure, saying, 'Mistakes were made. We are apologizing,'" Tarzi says. "And for the people who [committed such crimes], at least, to not be in positions of power. This legislation, in effect, basically exonerates -- and it disallows even criticism or discussion of anything that happened in the past 25 years. This is a broad mandate [lawmakers have] given to themselves, basically, because a lot of the parliamentarians are people who, at least in the view of the Afghans, are guilty of war crimes."

Foreign Experience

In a statement, UNAMA says international experience shows that "truth is vital to reconciliation." It notes that Karzai's government has fully endorsed an "Action Plan on Peace, Reconciliation and Justice" required under the internationally backed "Afghan Compact" of 2006. UNAMA also notes that the Afghan Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to freedom of expression -- and that people from all parts of Afghan society should be encouraged to join the debate about dealing with war crimes in the country's past.

Tarzi says that instead of blanket immunity for all war criminals, the best historical example for Afghan reconciliation is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in South Africa to deal with the abuses of the Apartheid era.

"For any country that goes through a prolonged war, there is always a healing process needed," Tarzi says. "We have examples of international courts of justice. In the case of Afghanistan, the example that would have been best to be followed was the example of South Africa -- and basically, that was truth and reconciliation. The main issue was not to kill people and not to put more people in jail, but to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and have the people who [committed crimes] -- and least the ones who were [in positions of power] -- take responsibility. And try to do good things in society. But not [for such people to] be in the leadership role."

Critics and supporters alike say the bill could lead to an amnesty for fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- who now heads his own militant group.

That could complicate Kabul's relations with the international community.

The Wolesi Jirga bill also dismisses allegations of war crimes published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) against some lawmakers. The bill rejects documentation by HRW researchers as "inaccurate reports" that are "based on malicious intentions."

Brad Adams, the Asia director of HRW, tells RFE/RL that the group's reports compile accurate facts known by all Afghans.

"Our reports have been based on the stories of Afghans," Adams says. "They've told us what happened to them. And they've told us who did it to them. And they named these people. So these are the facts. It's up to the government to make sure that people who were responsible for these crimes are held accountable. This is not something that one makes political deals about. Everybody in Afghanistan knows what happened -- things that had more or less been put to one side. And [the war criminals] were more or less hoping that everybody would forget. We've recorded people's stories and have made sure that the world didn't forget."

Adams and Tarzi warn that ordinary Afghans could become cynical about democracy if alleged war criminals in the parliament are able to declare a blanket immunity for themselves.

Saving Afghanistan's Heritage

Saving Afghanistan's Heritage

A UNESCO team working to stabilize Herat minarets in 2003 (UNESCO)

THE MINARETS OF HERAT: In Afghanistan's leafy western city of Herat, a two-lane road slices between the city's five remaining 15th-century minarets. Every truck, car, bus, motorcycle, and horse-drawn carriage that passes by sends vibrations coursing through the delicate structures.
In particular, the Fifth Minaret -- all 55 meters of it -- seems ready to collapse into a dusty heap of bricks and colored tiles at any moment. A large crack near its base makes drivers speed up just a little as they pass by....(more)

Click on the image to view an audio slideshow of this story by RFE/RL correspondent Grant Podelco.


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