WASHINGTON DC, Aug 16, 2005 | ISSN: 1684-2057 | www.satribune.com

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Election activity in Afghanistan. Below a female candidate poster

Afghan War Criminals Poised For a Comeback

By S. Mudassir Ali Shah

KABUL, August 16: With the much-hyped parliamentary elections weeks away in Afghanistan, dozens of candidates accused of war crimes remain in the field amid growing criticism from human rights activists and civil society organizations in Afghanistan and abroad.

Under the electoral law, all Afghans not convicted by court are eligible for contesting the ballot. But how can one think of convicting powerful warlords and gunmen in a country where the judiciary had been non-existent for all practical purposes over the last 25 years of strife?

Of the 208 wannabes barred from the September 18 vote, only 11 were accused of maintaining links to armed groups. In what can be best described as a hogwash or plain pretence, the poll panel singled out one known former commander retaining connections with private militias.

How foolproof or credible the scrutiny of the more than 5,500 contenders has been can be gauged from the fact that a large number of ex-commanders and militia leaders - accused of involvement in war crimes, gang activities and drug trafficking - are not only in the race but are also well poised to force their way to parliament.

Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA), co-organizer of the elections under the Bonn Agreement, admitted the process may have imperfections and flaws. He also acknowledged some criminals, whose backgrounds were unclear to the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), might stay in the electoral fray.

"Unfortunately, we have to accept the possibility of such people contesting the elections. But we do hope they don't make their way to the new parliament... and it is up to the people whom they vote for," Adrian Edwards reasoned in an exclusive chat with Pajhwok Afghan News.

In many manifestations, one can see the continued, brazen disregard for the rule of law, constitutionalism and democratic norms in today's Afghanistan. People with murky past and bleak track records continue to hold high-profile positions in the US-baked Karzai administration.

Stained as it is by regional strongmen and thugs, the incumbent Afghan government responded rather coldly to calls from the respected New York-based Human Rights Watch and the Afghanistan Justice Project for arraigning war criminals. Coming from a government hostage to political expediency and vested interests, the reaction was par for the course.

Based on two years of research and interviews with victims of rights abuses and war crimes, the Human Rights Watch repot - released on July 6 - is a damning indictment of several senior Afghan officials. In no uncertain terms, the HRW report - covering the period of Afghanistan's civil war from April 1992 to March 1993 - lashed out at government policy of lending political legitimacy and an aura of gravitas to warlords. A sad commentary on the state of affairs in Afghanistan, the report also takes a swipe at the United Nations for uncritically supporting the embarrassing measure.

Ten days later, the Afghanistan Justice Project (AJP), another human rights body, issued a comprehensive report that documented war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated from 1978 to 2001. This organization too demanded of the Afghan government and the international community to take meaningful steps towards trying war criminals and mitigating the victims' persistent plight.

Wholesale massacres, disappearances, summary executions of tens of thousands of civilians, indiscriminate bombings, torture, mass rapes and other spine-tingling atrocities have been recorded in the chilling account of rights abuses committed since the late 1970s.

According to the well-researched report, some of the worst atrocities were committed by people, now ensconced in senior official positions and running for the first post-Taliban legislative elections. Escalating violence and a funding shortfall have also put a damper on the oft-touted polls.

More than three years of investigations and toil have gone into the report that held Karzai's Chief of Army Staff Abdul Rashid Dostum, Second Vice President Karim Khalili, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, Mohammad Mohaqiq, former defence minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim and the prime minister Gulbadin Hekmatyar responsible for unspeakable brutalities.

Haji Sher Alam, who led the troops involved in one of the most appalling massacres of 1993 in the Afshar locality in western Kabul, was recently appointed as governor of the southern Ghazni province. He is directly linked to the flattening of a whole district and mass killings and rapes, charges the report.

Syed Muhammad Gulabzoi, former interior minister who controlled the police, and Shah Nawaz Tanai, defense minister and in charge of the Afghan Army during the Communist regime, have also been branded as war criminals. But Gulabzoi has intriguingly qualified as a candidate for the national assembly from Khost and Tanai's newly registered political party has fielded many candidates.

A survey conducted by Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission in January found that most Afghans have - directly or indirectly - been victims of war crimes and rights abuses. It indicated a thumping majority of the long-wronged citizens believe prosecuting rights violators would bolster peace and security in the country.

The survey suggested a widespread but pent-up anger over the inclusion of warlords and militia commanders in the new political system. The commission recommended the creation of a special prosecution office within two years and a war crimes court in five. The report has since
been approved by President Hamid Karzai, who promised to implement the commission's recommendations.

Hollow promises and sugar-coated slogans apart, the government has not yet initiated even a single determined move towards the trial of war criminals, bolstering the fragile judiciary or improving the security situation.

Soon after the HRW report was issued, Karzai's spokesman Karim Rahimi announced the formation of a fact-finding commission to probe war crime allegations and the presence of 'war criminals' in the government. In a knee-jerk reaction, he regarded the report as incomplete, imbalanced and focused on the rights situation in a particular period of time.

However, despite his reservations, the spokesman promised the inquiry committee would be set up in a week's time to launch investigations into the allegations. "Action will be initiated against government functionaries found involved in war crimes," he went on to hold the assurance.

But more than four weeks down the road, there is no sign of the commission the spokesman had promised to set up within a week to look into the serious charges against men in high places. The cynics believe issues the government does not want to resolve are assigned to commissions, widely blasted for trying to hush up important matters Ask the skeptics why the findings of the commissions - appointed over the last three years and a half to investigate different issues like the killing of four cabinet ministers - were not made public.

They maintain the rulers will be better off without going through the charade of appointing commissions and inquiry committees on questions of public interest. Acknowledging the fact that the war-ravaged country lacked mechanisms to bring the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice, the AJP posited the government could start taking baby-steps in that direction, as judicial reforms were imperative for dealing with past abuses.

Mohammad Nasim Faqiri, spokesman for the Jamiat-i-Islami, contended mujahideen and the communist regime were not tarred with the same brush. The latter, he observed, was guilty of organized crime against its foes while the mujahideen dispensation was clean on that count.

Abuses in their era were committed by a handful of irresponsible individuals and groups, he elaborated, asking why the rights groups did not document violations of the pre-Communist era.
Vice-President Karim Khalili's Hezb-i-Wahdat stressed the rights watchdogs must work without discrimination and bias. Such organizations, the party contended, should not be driven by ethnic and political considerations.

Last month, a British court set a welcome precedent by handing down a 20-year jail sentence to an Afghan warlord on charges of summary executions, the slaughter of 11 men in a vehicle and torturing many innocent compatriots. Living illegally in south London prior to his arrest, Sarwar Zardad Faryadi's conviction represented a significant precedent: torture perpetrated in one country was prosecuted in another for the first time.

While handing down the landmark ruling, Justice Tready remarked the 42-year-old, who controlled a number of military check-posts between Kabul and Jalalabad, was personally involved in acts of torture and hostage-taking by allowing his men to commit the outrages.

"The trial of Sarwar Zardad Faryadi in Britain on charges of conspiracy to torture and hostage-taking from 1992 to 1996 and the detention of Hesamuddin and Habibullah in the Netherlands are important international initiatives," the AIHRC said on July 19. Hoping the steps would help bring to justice perpetrators of crimes against humanity in Afghanistan, the human rights watchdog said the first-ever international trial on charges of previous crimes against humanity would end the culture of impunity and boost popular confidence in the transitional justice system in the country.

The AIHRC called on prosecutors of other countries to emulate the British paradigm in dealing with Afghans accused of human rights abuses in accordance with the principle of universal jurisdiction. How many war criminals are prosecuted and denied the right to contest the upcoming elections is a question that President Karzai and his backers are expected to answer. As they harp on bringing democracy to Afghanistan, it would not be out of place to remind Messrs Karzai, Bush and Blair that cherry-picking is inconsistent with the very spirit of democracy and goes against the grain of the rule of law.

Despite the Karzai administration and the UN going into overdrive to establish that the polls would usher in good governance and transparency, there is already a distinct straw in the wind the outcome may not translate into the long-cherished change. For sure, the announcement of a decided and coherent policy on contending with war criminals will earn Karzai a good deal of goodwill besides setting in motion a process of accountability.

Given the trail of death and destruction it has witnessed over the last two decades and a half plus its aftermath, Afghanistan cannot dream of having a perfect or ideal election. Psephologists are spot in in their assessment of the situation. But people at the helm of affairs in Kabul and their global backers must not lose sight of the screaming reality that apart from triumphs and defeats, there is much else is at stake at the polls.

Can Afghanistan afford to fall back into the hands of warlords and war criminals in the wake of the elections? Odds are that many of them, if not stopped in their tracks, will end up in the lower house of parliament and hijack the system once again in the fullness of time. And should that come to pass, Afghanistan will be in for a tragedy of gargantuan magnitude, for which the incumbent government and its sympathizers will bear principal responsibility.

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