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Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2007

Afghan amnesty shows warlord's clout

Many are now politicians, shielded by the new law from government prosecution on charges of war crimes and atrocities.

By Henry Chu, Times Staff Writer

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — If there's one thing Abdul Rasul Sayyaf knows, it's how to guard an exposed flank.

As one of many warlords battling for control of Kabul in the early 1990s, Sayyaf ordered his fighters to protect their positions and press for advantage — which they did by shelling civilian neighborhoods and slaughtering members of Afghanistan's oppressed ethnic Hazara minority, human rights groups say.

Sayyaf is still watching his back. But now he's doing it as a member of Afghanistan's parliament.

A woman cries for Afshar massacre
RAWA Photo: An Afghan woman recounts how her husband was killed in Afshar, west of Kabul. Hundreds of innocent people from Hazara minority were massacred by forces of Sayyaf and Ahmad Shah Massoud in this area in 1993

Last month, he joined other lawmakers in approving a controversial amnesty bill that, in effect, shields him and other warlords-turned-politicians from government prosecution for alleged war crimes and atrocities such as rape and kidnapping.

Supporters call it a necessary step to unshackle Afghanistan from its violent past. But critics say the measure, signed by President Hamid Karzai, deals a blow to this country's struggling democracy, allowing people accused of brutality to get off scot-free — or, worse, remain in positions of power.

It was the latest sign that Afghanistan's former warlords and commanders, some of whom continue to maintain private armies, are still among the country's most powerful forces, despite Karzai's famous declaration six years ago that the "era of warlordism is over."

The new law has dismayed rights groups, the United Nations and Afghans such as Haji Aminullah, whose teenage son was killed by rebel fighters after being falsely labeled an informer.

"If I could face Karzai, see what I would tell him," said Aminullah, 76. "I will never accept or forgive the people who killed my son."

This is a nation whose last 25 years are steeped in blood from the rebel mujahedin's battle against Soviet domination, the civil war among warlords and the U.S.-led overthrow of the fundamentalist Taliban in late 2001. Tens of thousands of Afghans died in the crossfire; whole swaths of Kabul, the capital, were reduced to rubble.

Many of those who led the fighting — and allegedly allowed or committed such atrocities as summary execution, torture and rape — now serve as government ministers or members of parliament. Some are acclaimed as heroes and have lashed out at anyone daring to question their wartime conduct.

Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Mullah Taj Mohammad, Younis Qanooni, Haji Almas and Mullah Ezatullah [...] are implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity that occurred during hostilities in Kabul in the early 1990s.
Human Rights Watch, September 15, 2005

"Whoever is against the mujahedin is against Islam, and they are the enemies of this country," Sayyaf thundered at a Feb. 23 rally in support of the bill.

The demonstration drew 25,000 people to Kabul's G Stadium, the scene of mutilations, stonings and other horrors during the Taliban's reign of terror. Attending the rally were several prominent leaders whom Human Rights Watch has identified as among the worst perpetrators of abuses who should be brought up on charges of war crimes, including Sayyaf, Vice President Karim Khalili and Abdul Rashid Dostum, chief of staff to the head of the Afghan army.

The gathering was clearly intended as a signal to lawmakers that Afghanistan's former warlords and commanders could still marshal vociferous and even fearsome support. Emphasizing that point, young men marched through the streets shouting, "Death to Malalai Joya!" a female legislator who has spoken out against the warlords.

The amnesty law was approved a few weeks later. It excuses the state from going after those suspected of human rights violations; individuals, however, are still permitted to file criminal charges against those they accuse of having harmed them.

During the bloody civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, men like Rabbani and Dostam turned Kabul into a pile of rubble, killing thousands of civilians. If they had been born in the Balkans, they and others like them would likely be sitting in a cell at the International Criminal Court in The Hague today. But in the Intercontinental, they adopted a manifesto ... urging nothing less than the overthrow of Karzai and the re-establishment of their former power as tribal chiefs and provincial warlords.
Spiegel, May 14, 2007

That is not enough, critics say. It is the government's duty to protect and stand up for its citizens, they argue, and the fact that many of the alleged offenders continue to hold power virtually guarantees that no individual will sue for justice, out of fear for his or her own safety.

"The state has a legal obligation to investigate, prosecute or extradite individual perpetrators of serious crimes such as serious breaches of the Geneva Conventions," said Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. "A state cannot absolve itself of its responsibilities to take action against perpetrators of such crimes."

Other countries have granted limited amnesties, including post-apartheid South Africa. But in that country, those seeking immunity from prosecution were required to first confess their offenses before a truth and reconciliation commission.

Karzai gave his assent to the bill at a time of mounting pressure from powerful factions within parliament. His office managed to add the provision about an individual's right to file charges, amending what was virtually a blanket amnesty.

But disillusionment with his government still runs high as Afghans struggle with unemployment, lack of basic services such as electricity and with rising violence from an invigorated Taliban insurgency.

Some commentators describe the amnesty as crucial to building confidence among politicians who not long ago tried to kill one another on the battlefield. But rights activists scoff at that line of reasoning.

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