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(Un)Civil Societies Report: December 28, 2005

28 December 2005, Volume 6, Number 18
WAR CRIMES TRIAL MARKS BREAK WITH PAST. 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 on 26 December, 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.

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. He 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 on 26 December, 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," Sarwari said. "I believe that in the past I worked for the benefit of my country and my people."

Sarwari could be sentenced to death if convicted. 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 it shows that a culture of impunity may be ending in Afghanistan. He said the trial demonstrates the Afghan government's commitment 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," Nadery said. "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."

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; that case marked the first time a foreign national has been convicted in a British court for crimes committed abroad against non-U.K. citizens.

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 the presidential chief of staff of the "High Command of the Armed Forces of Afghanistan," 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 (HRW) has urged Karzai to set up a special court to try individuals accused of 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 that only the courts can decide who has been involved in past abuses. He warned that the country has to avoid becoming trapped in a "limited circle of revenge." (By Golnaz Esfandiari)

WOMEN LAWMAKERS SIT DOWN AT THE TABLE. During their campaigns, they endured intimidation, threats of physical violence, and restrictions tied to Afghanistan's conservative traditions. But they persevered. And on 20 December, dozens of female deputies took their seats in the upper and lower houses of Afghanistan's new parliament.

Shukria Barkzai, one of 68 women elected to seats in the lower house of Afghanistan's new parliament, called it a "momentous day." The parliament is also the first in Afghanistan since 1973.

Barkzai described her feelings during the opening session of parliament in an interview with RFE/RL's Afghan Service.

"The atmosphere was beautiful, very calm, full of emotions and love," she said. "I think even if our previous leaders once again attempt to divide people under the names of languages, regions, and clans, I am 100 percent sure that the current atmosphere in parliament will continue forever."

Twenty-five percent of the seats in the 249-seat People's Council (Wolesi Jirga), the lower house of the National Assembly, were reserved for women. Seventeen women will also sit in the upper house, known as the Council of Elders (Meshrano Jirga).

Barkzai said she hopes the new parliament will set an example for the whole country. "We should make good laws for Afghanistan, and we should be strong observers of the law for this country," she said. "We should respect new ideas. We should catch some people who don't believe in democracy, but now they've joined this new process. We should teach them [what] democracy is, and I hope this parliament will be a successful parliament for the future of this country."

Malalai Joya represents the western province of Farah in the lower house. Joya is one of the most outspoken critics of the makeup of the new parliament, whose members include warlords, militia commanders, and former Taliban officials. Many of the new legislators also lack political experience.

"I'll try to introduce legislation that will protect the rights of the oppressed people and safeguard women's rights," Joya said. "Those who came here under the name of democracy shouldn't be given the chance to continue their crimes under the slogan of democracy. Which means first, I represent my people here, and secondly, I will also continue my struggle against warlords, no matter what party or sex they belong to. I'll continue my struggle, especially against those parties who destroyed our country. As I am representing my people, I have big hopes."

Joya said she won't discriminate between male and female members of parliament, but said that those who committed human rights abuses and other crimes in Afghanistan's violent past should not be treated equally.

During September's parliamentary vote, Afghans also elected representatives to 34 Provincial Councils, who then appointed two-thirds of the members of the 102-seat upper house. Afghan President Hamid Karzai selected the remaining members.

Joya said she believes Karzai compromised too much in his choices. "Unfortunately, we see there are some selected members of the upper house with blood on their hands," she said. "That is useless, and they present a threat to the people of Afghanistan. The government should not trust those who have failed the people once. Instead, the government should have selected people with qualifications in legislation and those who have not committed any crimes. Many people are worried and concerned of Karzai's decision to take such action."

Reuters quoted Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, a former factional official whose forces have been accused of abuses, as saying the term "warlord" is outdated. Abd al-Rab al-Rasul Sayyaf, a powerful former commander who has been accused of war crimes by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, said the new parliament "represents the reality of Afghanistan." (By Hamida Osman)

THE YOUNGER GENERATION'S 'TEHRAN BLUES' Below, RFE/RL presents an excerpt from "Tehran Blues," a new book by Kaveh Basmenji, head of RFE/RL's Persian-language Radio Farda. In the book, which was published this year by Saqi Books, Basmenji argues that Iran's youth are in near-open revolt for want of greater freedoms, in furious defiance of the mullahs and their brand of somber religiosity. Through numerous interviews and a wide-ranging assessment of contemporary Iran, Basmenji seeks to answer the questions what do Iran's youth want and how far are their elders prepared to go to accommodate them.

Chameleon Candidates

In the run-up to the presidential elections in June 2005, several candidates went to far lengths to convince the young population that they understood them and cared for them. As a commander of the Revolutionary Guards and later police chief, [Muhammad Baqer] Qalibaf used to sport the trademark appearance and outfit of all devoted revolutionaries: long beard, shabby clothes and pistol holster. Once an election hopeful, he went through a metamorphosis, trimming his beard and wearing designer suits and latest fashion sunglasses. Former higher education minister and reformist candidate Mostafa Moin appointed a woman -- former Majles deputy Elaheh Koolaei -- as his spokesperson. Koolai then appeared in her first press conference not only without a chador, but wearing a colorful headscarf. And [former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-] Rafsanjani's campaign was highlighted by a "carnival" of young boys and girls in blue jeans riding fancy cars and brandishing headbands with his name on them in Latin letters. In the words of satirist Ebrahim Nabavi, "we have succeeded in imposing other ways of thinking on the regime. It would suffice to take a look at the election campaigns to see how far we have succeeded." [For RFE/RL's complete coverage of Iran's 2005 presidential campaign, see]

The Hejab Wars

Although the hejab wars have been a constant feature of the past two decades, not all youth are openly defiant to the Islamic codes of appearance. There are still many young girls, particularly in smaller towns and cities, that choose to wear the chador in public; many boys who dress in the bland, traditionally religious uniform of plain shirts and trousers. However, as it becomes more and more difficult to forestall youngsters' exposure to what is happening beyond Iran's borders, this is undergoing a rapid change, even among strict traditional religious families. Parissa, a 16-year-old high-school student whose parents have brought her up wearing the chador since the age of nine, told me how every day in her life was a constant show.

"On my way to school, as soon as I get far enough from home, I turn into a back alley. I carefully fold my black chador and stuff it in my schoolbag. I daub my cheeks with some rouge that I have stashed away in my bag, and then I walk towards the school. At a safe distance from the school, I wipe off the rouge and put on the chador again."

Being a relative of mine, she confided in me that she sometimes saw a young boy and that they walked together a short distance hold hands.

"Do you call up each other?" I asked.

"Why, of course not. My parents have their eyes and ears glued to the telephone!"

"So how do you communicate?"

"Why, of course, through the web. Whenever I'm allowed to log on to the web for some research work, he comes into the same chat-room as I do."

"And do you ever see each other except on the way to the school?"

"Sometimes. Particularly during Moharram ceremonies."

Although the public mood seems subdued and somber during this most sacred month in the lunar Shi'i calendar, the Moharram mourning period provides an exceptional opportunity for young boys and girls to flirt without being harassed or persecuted, and away from the gaze of parents. The youth have practically transformed the nationwide traditional ceremonies marking the martyrdom of the third Imam Hossein. In 2005, in parts of Tehran, the Ashura ceremonies turned into what conservatives described as "indecent displays." Failure to stamp out such affront against the holiest morning day in Shi'ism, some hard-line newspaper commentators said, would force pious citizens to take matters into their own hands. "Let the officials realize that the heroic and passionate people of Iran can easily deal with a handful of hoodlums and promiscuous elements that ridicule our sanctities," the conservative "Jomhuri-ye Eslami" said in an editorial.

The main focus of hard-line anger was a gathering of several hundred youngsters at Mohseni Square in affluent northern Tehran on the night of Ashura. "In the sunset of Ashura, women and girls in tight clothes and transparent scarves and guys dressed in Western fashion lit candles while laughing their hearts out," said the "Ya Lesarat" weekly, mouthpiece of the feared Ansar-e Hezbollah hard-line vigilante group, members of whom later dispersed the crowds. Other newspapers printed pictures from the Mohseni Square gathering, focusing on young girls wearing make-up, laughing, and mingling freely with the opposite sex.

'Awful And Immoral Scenes'

"In this disgraceful event which was like a large street party, women and well as boys...mocked Muslims' beliefs and sanctities in the most shameless manner," "Jomhuri-ye Eslami" said.

"Some long-haired guys would openly cuddle girls creating awful and immoral scenes. Fast, provoking music...nearby gave the street party more steam," it added. Instead of beating their chests or flagellating themselves with metal chains in bouts of sorrowful frenzy, boys in Mohseni Square, dressed in latest Western-fashion black outfits, were holding candles, which they passed to girls with loud make-up and equally fashionable black dresses."

Tehran residents say the Mohseni Square Ashura gathering has swelled in size over recent years, attracting growing numbers from the generally more affluent parts of the city. But political analysts said the trend observed at Mohseni Square was in evidence, to a lesser extent, elsewhere. "In general, religious events like Ashura have become a way for young people to interact freely in public," said one analyst who follows religious affairs closely. "The religious side of it is much less important to them than the social aspect," the analyst, who declined to be named, added.

Mohsen Kadivar, a mid-ranking cleric and philosophy lecturer whose views landed him in prison a few years back, told Reuters that young people in secular Turkey were more interested in religion than those in Iran. "This shows that religion is voluntary. Forcing it on society has the opposite effect," he said.

'A Nation Of Political Weeping'

Traditionally marked by a deep sense of gloom and sorrow that was manifested by mourners weeping for what had happened to Imam Hossein in the Karala desert, Moharram acquired a political meaning and played a vital part in the demonstrations that led to the ousting of the shah in 1979. In fact, in one of his famous remarks after the Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini had said, "Whatever we have today is owing to all this weeping...we are a nation of political weeping." In recent years, however, the Moharram mourning -- which tends to incorporate a constantly diminishing amount of weeping -- has posed a new political menace for a system that once relied heavily upon emotional teardrops. The fact that ceremonies of the mourning period of Moharram are widely held in every point of every town and village in Iran makes it all the more difficult for the authorities to control them.

Every year, Sattar Khan Aveneu in west Tehran is the meeting place of tens of thousands of mourners during the 10 sacred evenings of Moharram, culminating in Ashura, the day when Imam Hossein and his 72 loyal companions were brutally slain. Huge black sheets of cloth, decorated with calligraphies on the margins with religious poetry, enshroud the walls, and black flags fly over almost every building. Large makeshift tents are erected to host mourning men after they come to the end of their procession. Gigantic rice pots boil on log fires. Sheep and cows and sometimes camels are slaughtered to make stew for the mourners. With the falling of dusk, people begin to swarm the streets, seemingly more in a picnic spirit than willing to shed tears. While processions go on to the beat of drums and cymbals, thousands of boys and girls freely mix and flirt, sometimes until dawn.

A Metallica Sweatshirt And A Black Headband

Leaning against a parked car on Sattar Khan Avenue with a couple of his friends, [a young man named] Bahman told me what the ceremony meant to him. "It's the only entertainment that we can have on these days. And it's the only occasion we can stay out late without our parents giving us a hard time." He looked 18, he was wearing a black skull-and-crossbones-marked Metallica sweater and black leather pants. He sported a black headband, ostensibly a token of mourning, framing his handsome features and accentuating his wide black eyes. His mouth slightly smelt of alcohol.

"Have you been drinking?" I asked.

He grinned and pulled a face to his friends. "Only sherbet," he said.

'Let's Go For A Ride'

A young girl in a fine ebony gown, open in front and showing her slender build in blue jeans and a black top, approached us. "They're busy with my uncle's family," she said, probably referring to his parents. "Let's go for a ride." Bahman leapt onto the saddle of a small motorbike and the girl sat behind him. He started the engine and zoomed away amid cheering sounds of the other boys.

But there are also people among the youth who despise the way the mourning ceremonies have transformed. In a grocer's shop down the road, a young man in a black shirt was standing behind the counter, shaking his head. "Everything's become a farce. They no more respect anyone, even Imam Hossein," he said.

I asked him why he thought that had happened. "Loss of belief," he said. "When I was a kid, during Moharram we felt so close to God. They seem to believe in nothing any more these days." And then he fell silent again.

Half an hour later I ran into Bahman again. One of his friends was gone, so was the motorbike. I asked him if Ashura had any religious meaning for him. "Sure," he said. "I love Imam Hossein. But I don't think he was the kind of person they try to portray. He loved freedom. So do I. Times have changed from 1,400 years ago. So has the meaning of freedom."

With a young couple riding on it, the motorbike appeared again, made an abrupt semicircle and stopped. The girl vanished into the crowd. "It's a kind of outdoor party," the boy said. "You know how tricky indoor parties can be."

BAN ON WESTERN MUSIC SOUNDS LIKE THE SAME OLD TUNE. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has ordered the state broadcaster, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), not to play "Western and decadent music." Instead, it must promote "fine" Iranian music and revolutionary-era tunes. The ban on Western music is contained in a resolution issued by the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council -- headed by Ahmadinejad -- that calls for a change in IRIB programs. IRIB has been given six months to "review the current programming and to adjust to the new directives." But Iranians say there appears to be little new in the ban, that Western music has always been taboo in Iran.

In its resolution, the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council said the "promotion of decadent and Western music should be avoided and the stress should be put on authorized, artistic, classical, and fine Iranian music."

In recent years, Iranian state television and radio have broadcast instrumental versions of Western pop songs, as well as techno and house rhythms. Classical Western music can also be heard on Iran's state broadcasts.

Does the new edict mean the authorities are going to crack down even harder on such music? No one seems to know.

Pejman Akbarzadeh, a young musician in Tehran and a member of Artists Without Borders, told RFE/RL that it is unclear what type of Western music will be banned from state broadcasting.

"The ruling that has been issued now reminds me of another ruling that was issued in the early days of the revolution, saying that some music pieces that do not respect some [Islamic principles] are banned," Akbarzadeh said. "The new ruling is also not clear, like that one was. Therefore, everybody is confused about what kind of music will be banned."

Sohrab Mehrabi, the lead singer and guitarist of 127, an Iranian alternative-rock band, also expressed confusion about the new ruling. "In my opinion, this isn't anything new. It has always been agreed that there shouldn't be any Western music," he said. "I don't know why [there is a new ban]. If this issue would be expressed more clearly, it would be better for everyone."

The Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council has said more effort should be made to produce and broadcast "relaxing themes and the memorable music from the revolution."

In the past, Akbarzadeh said, watered-down Western tunes have been used in state broadcasts as background music or as theme songs. "Music from different genres is [usually] used as a filler," he said. "You can sometimes hear classical music on our television. You can hear lighter pieces. Sometimes you can even hear folk music from Western countries. But Western music with singing and lyrics is never aired on Iranian television."

Most forms of Western music were banned in Iran following the establishment of the Islamic Republic. But such restrictions eased somewhat during the two terms of former President Mohammad Khatami. Many young Iranians enjoy access to Western music through satellite television and a black market in music CDs, a trend that is unlikely to be affected by the new resolution.

Ahmadinejad, Khatami's successor, has stressed the need to restore the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He has also called for the promotion of Koranic values. In November, he was quoted by Iran's official news agency, IRNA, as saying that "all political, economic, and cultural goals of the country need to directed toward materializing Islamic ideals."

Some observers see the new edict on Western music as part of a cultural clampdown.

In October, the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council ordered a ban on Western movies that "degrade the true culture of Islamic societies" and feature propaganda for "the world oppressor," a term used by the Iranian establishment to designate the United States.

Last month, Iranian Culture Minister Mohammad-Hossein Saffar-Harandi said he would purge his ministry of officials who had failed to protect Islamic values. "Some maintain that culture should have no limits," he said in comments quoted by Iranian news agencies. "But we want cinema and theater that conform with our religious beliefs."

Akbarzadeh, the Tehran-based musician, said it is not clear yet how the new resolution will be implemented in practice. "Currently, there has been only talk about these issues, and in practice no decision has been made. So we can't really comment now," he said. "We have to wait and see, as everybody is waiting, and they are in limbo. People want to see what will happen in practice, and then we can really say whether these policies will lead to [new] restrictions or whether cultural activities -- especially in the field of music -- will continue as before in Iran."

Asked whether Iranian rock bands are concerned, 127 lead singer Mohebi told RFE/RL that they already face many restrictions. "We are neither making money out of our music, nor are many people listening to our music [because of restrictions]," he said. "Even before Mr. Ahmadinejad, we were not able to distribute our work. We are waiting for the Culture Ministry to consider and review our works." (By Golnaz Esfandiari)

INTERVIEW: THE VOICE OF IRAN'S YOUTH In November, RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari spoke with 19-year-old Arash, who delivers pizzas for a Tehran pizzeria. He told RFE/RL that young people in Iran are worried about the future.

Arash: Regarding the demands of young people, several issues need to be taken into account. First of all, their demands should be taken seriously. Somebody should listen to their demands, their problems. Then there are the financial problems [unemployment]. Most of them are worried about their future, what's going to happen to them. And most of them say, "Our families don't understand us." These are the main problems of the youth. Most of them are pessimistic about the future. They have no hope."

RFE/RL: How about you?

Arash: My heart is broken. I have no hope and I don't have [a proper] job.

RFE/RL: Many young Iranians say they want more social freedom. They want to have the freedom to wear what they want and be free to go out and socialize with members of the opposite sex. Is there concern that there could be a crackdown on the relative social freedom that exists now?

Arash: Young people manage to do what they want to do, including having relations with [members of the opposite sex] regardless of restrictions. But their main problem is money. Many of them think about it. Outside Iran, they say that boys and girls are arrested in Iran because they've been together -- it's really not true. Every day I see many young men who are with their girlfriends and nobody bothers them. There are not many restrictions.

RFE/RL: Do you feel that many young people are politically oriented or is it the opposite?

Arash: For some, politics is important; for others, it's not. Most of them don't want to get involved in politics.

RFE/RL: Why is that?

Arash: I don't know. I personally don't like politics at all.

RFE/RL: How do young people spend their free time?

Arash: Those who have money drive their cars and turn up the music. They go uptown; they go to the shopping malls; they eat pizzas. Those who don't have money just wander around aimlessly in the streets; they go to the park. Some go to the sports club, and some just stay home and sleep. (By Golnaz Esfandiari)