Global Policy Forum


Human Rights Watch
July 7, 2005

Numerous high-level officials and advisors in Afghanistan's current government are implicated in major war crimes and human rights abuses that took place in the early 1990s, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 133-page report, "Blood-Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan's Legacy of Impunity," is based on extensive research by Human Rights Watch over the last two years, including more than 150 interviews with witnesses, survivors, government officials, and combatants. It documents war crimes and human rights abuses during a particularly bloody year in Afghanistan's civil war—the Afghan calendar year of 1371, from April 1992 to March 1993, following the collapse of the Soviet-backed Najibullah government in Kabul.

Human Rights Watch said that although some perpetrators are dead or currently in hiding, many leaders implicated in the abuses are now officials in Afghanistan's defense or interior ministries, or are advisors to President Hamid Karzai. Some are running for office in parliamentary and local elections scheduled for September 2005. Others operate as warlords or regional strongmen, directing subordinates in official positions.

"This report isn't just a history lesson," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "These atrocities were among some of the gravest in Afghanistan's history, yet today many of the perpetrators still wield power."

The period covered in the report, the Afghan year 1371, was marked by intense fighting in Kabul between different mujahedeen and former government factions vying for power in the wake of the government's collapse. As the year began, the city was largely unscathed by serious military conflict, but as hostilities progressed, whole sections of Kabul were reduced to rubble, tens of thousands of civilians were killed and wounded, and at least half a million people were displaced.

Rival armed factions committed extensive human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war, illegally shelling and rocketing civilian areas, abducting and murdering civilians, and pillaging civilian areas. The report shows that the abuses of the period were neither inevitable consequences of war nor unavoidable mistakes, but were rather the results of illegal acts and omissions by factional leaders and commanders. The report notes that many commanders may be criminally culpable for their behavior during this period.

Human Rights Watch urged the Afghan government and international community to prioritize efforts to hold past perpetrators accountable for their crimes by creating a Special Court to try offenders. "Perpetrators of past abuses who go unpunished are more likely to commit new abuses and use violence to get their way," said Adams. "They pose a continuing threat to Afghanistan's future."

To help maintain independence and guarantee international fair trial standards, Human Rights Watch recommended that the court be comprised of both Afghan and international judges, with an international majority, and with an international prosecutor. As judicial reform is a necessary precursor for any meaningful attempts to provide justice for past abuses, Human Rights Watch also urged the government to accelerate and redouble efforts to reform the judicial system and establish an independent judiciary. Human Rights Watch also called on the government to implement vetting mechanisms to sideline past abusers from government.

Many Afghans, especially in Kabul, have terrible memories of the fighting in the early 1990s. An Afghan witness described an incident in which factional forces targeted civilians from one of Kabul's central mountains: "They were firing into this street. . . . Seventeen people were killed. . . . Clearly they were civilians. Yes, it was clear: they had burqas, there were children."

An Afghan nurse quoted in the report described the typical effects of street fighting: "Hundreds of people were wounded when they fought—every time they fought. The hospital would be full of patients, overwhelmed; we couldn't treat everyone who was brought there. People were dying in the halls."

Human Rights Watch said that much of Afghanistan's last 27 years has been marked by human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war. Afghanistan suffered 14 years of domination by the Soviet Union from 1978 to 1992, marked by large-scale atrocities by the Soviet Army, carpet bombing of civilian areas, murder and torture of prisoners, and harsh political repression. The Taliban, which ruled from 1996 to 2001, also committed war crimes and other abuses, and as a government operated almost entirely outside of established human rights principles.

"In Afghanistan today, alleged war criminals—Taliban, mujahedeen, communist—enjoy total impunity in the name of national reconciliation," said Adams. "This is an insult to victims and an affront to justice."

Human Rights Watch's report implicates numerous factional leaders and commanders for their role in the abuses, including:

  • Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, a radical Islamist commander and leader of the Ittihad-e Islami faction, who now advises President Karzai and exercises major political power over the Afghan judiciary and has numerous proxies within the Afghan government;
  • Abdul Rashid Dostum, the leader of the Junbish-e Milli faction who now holds a senior post in the ministry of defense and exercises political control of several provinces in the north of Afghanistan;
  • Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Afghanistan's defense minister from 2001 to 2004 and a commander in the Jamiat-e Islami/Shura-e Nazar faction of Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Massoud (who was killed in 2001); and
  • Karim Khalili, a commander in the Hezb-e Wahdat faction and now one of President Karzai's two vice-presidents.
  • Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Hezb-e Islami faction, which committed some of the worst crimes of the period, is currently at large and is believed to be coordinating insurgent attacks on Afghan and U.S. military forces in Afghanistan.

    Human Rights Watch said that several other commanders from the Jamiat-e Islami and Shura-e Nazar faction implicated in crimes during the early 1990s are now candidates for parliament or are serving in the police and military. Numerous commanders from Sayyaf's Ittihad faction are also serving in important security and judicial posts.

    In addition to proposing a Special Court, the report recommends that the president appoint an expert panel to propose and help implement additional programs to address issues not dealt with by the Special Court, such as trying crimes outside the Special Court's jurisdiction; creating an archive for the historical documentation of past abuses; recommending appropriate restitution or compensation mechanisms; and starting educational initiatives, such as the drafting of fair historical accounts for school textbooks.

    "If Afghanistan doesn't begin a process of addressing its history now, the past may repeat itself," said Adams

    More Information on International Justice
    More General Articles on International Criminal Tribunals and Special Courts
    More Information on Afghanistan


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