Monday 25 July 2011

Afghanistan War Crimes (Part 1)

In February 2010, Amnesty International called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan Parliament to immediately suspend controversial legislation that would give immunity from prosecution for serious violations of human rights, including war crimes and crimes against humanity committed, in the previous thirty years.

The legislation, the "National Stability and Reconciliation" bill, was passed by both houses of the Afghan Parliament in early 2007 and published in the official Gazette in November 2008 but, unusually, it was not publicly divulged until January 2010.

Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, including the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission believed that this law was an attempt to provide legal cover for ongoing impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations, including the Taleban.

There are real doubts about the legal validity of this 'Impunity Bill', as no national legislation can immunize perpetrators of international crimes. Furthermore, President Karzai never signed this bill, and it was only divulged to the public almost two years after Parliament voted on it. Obviously, the people of Afghanistan didn’t get an opportunity to discuss it prior to the legislators of both houses voted on it. It makes me wonder just how many of the legislators who voted in favour of the legislation were war criminals at sometime during the previous 30 years.

Under this legislation, people who committed serious human rights violations and violations of the laws of war, including large scale massacres, widespread enforced disappearances, systematic use of torture, rape, public executions and other forms of ill-treatment would be immune to criminal prosecution if they pledge cooperation with the Afghan government or acted as informers for the government.

The Afghan people have time and again signalled that they want a government that protects and provides their human rights and that imposes the rule of law. This legislation is simply an effort to pervert the course of justice under the faulty guise of providing security.

Afghanistan has been at war since April 1978. During every phase of the conflict—the revolution of April 1978 that brought to power the factionalized Marxist-Leninist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, its radical reform measures and brutal crackdown on the uprisings that followed. I would be less than honest however if I were to say that all of the armed forces that fought in Afghanistan committed war crimes. Not every single fighter or official committed war crimes.

No single report can adequately document the many grave war crimes committed by all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan’s past thirty-two years of war as the list is far too vast to do so. It would cover crimes that drove millions of Afghans from their homes, laid waste to their farmlands and cities, and killed and maimed more than one million innocent men, women and children.

In this article, I will submit to you war crimes that took place in Afghanistan during the months between April 1978 to December 1979 and write about arrests, disappearances and summary executions; the Kerala massacre 1979; the Herat uprising in March 1979; bombings, disappearances and resistance in Hazarajat 1979; crackdown on uprisings in Kabul; and the use of torture.

What follows is information I gleaned from the ‘The Afghanistan Justice Project’ and other sources.

The tactics used by the Taraki (president)–Amin (his deputy) government to impose the reforms and crush any opposition sparked resistance throughout Afghanistan. In a report published in 1985, then Special Rapporteur Felix Ermacora noted that by August 1978, military operations had been undertaken in areas where resistance to the reforms was strongest, notably Kunar, Nuristan, Paktia, Parwan and Uruzgan. These operations included mass arrests, summary executions and in some cases, indiscriminate bombardments which killed an unknown number of civilians. Some of these incidents have been described in accounts by journalists and human rights activists who interviewed refugees in Pakistan.

This twenty month period, which began with the Saur revolution on April 27, 1978, saw some of the worst abuses of the entirety of the war. Nur Muhammad Taraki, of the Khalq faction, was president of Afghanistan until September 1979, when he was assassinated by his deputy, Hafizullah Amin who was also of the Khalq faction and the head of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a small Marxist-Leninist party. Most of Taraki’s family were also murdered. Amin then became the president of Afghanistan.

The PDPA then embarked on an ambitious and ruthless campaign to transform Afghanistan into a modern socialist state. During this period, the forces of the PDPA, principally the intelligence services, in addition to the regular army and police, committed war crimes on a massive scale. Throughout this period Amin was the driving force behind a radical reform agenda that was poorly planned and ruthlessly imposed, and soon provoked a series of popular uprisings around the country.

The PDPA leaders also proved to be brutal, inept and prone to in-fighting. They set much of the country against them by arresting or executing thousands of people whom they branded as counter-revolutionaries. Mass arrests and executions of known opponents began shortly after the coup and the PDPA targeted authorities in the countryside who opposed the regime and its reforms, including former government officials, religious leaders, tribal leaders, teachers and other intellectuals. In the cities as well, arrests of suspected dissidents and political activists were widespread.

Internal divisions within the PDPA contributed to the bloodshed. The party was divided into two factions, Khalq (“masses”) and Parcham (“flag”). After the coup, the new PDPA leadership, dominated by the Khalq faction, purged the party of leading members of the Parcham (flag) faction, executing at several hundred, imprisoning others and exiling some as ambassadors abroad.

Khalq leaders pushed forward an agenda of reform and repression designed to eliminate all opposition and transform the very structure of Afghan society. Mass arrests and executions began shortly after the coup and targeted those suspected of opposing the regime and its reforms which included former government officials, religious leaders, tribal leaders, teachers, other intellectuals and political activists such as Maoist, Islamist and ethnically based activists. Mass arrests were common in the cities as well, and the fate of many of those arrested was often brought about by their executions in Pul-I Charkhi, the prison on the outskirts of Kabul, or at done at other similar facilities.

Amin, was the driving force behind the government’s efforts to crush the opposition. The number of disappearances that took place between April 1978 and December 1979 is not known, but is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. The repression took other forms. The PDPA bombed areas of resistance, killing many civilians. The campaigns included bombing of villages in resistance-held areas. In most cases the bombing was indiscriminate and disproportionate, killing many innocent civilians. This form of repression sparked uprisings and mutinies within the Afghan army that threatened to destabilize the regime.

After Amin’s coup in September 1979, he renamed AGSA as KAM (Workers Intelligence Agency). Amin ran the agency through relatives and close associates. He appointed first Aziz Ahmad Akbari and then Dr. Asadullah Amin as its head. The agency received direct support from East Germany and the USSR. In his own book about the war, General Nabi Azimi, a Parchami former deputy defense minister and commander of the Kabul garrison under Najibullah, wrote that the regime had “arrested too many ordinary people, clergymen, intellectuals and put them in Pul-i Charkhi prison or executed them in Pul-i Charkhi prison without trial on dark nights and threw them into holes already prepared for their bodies.”

The practice of arrests without charge followed a similar pattern throughout the country. In many cases, agents of the intelligence services AGSA, later KAM, carried out the arrests. The first wave of repression was pre-emptive: among the thousands arrested shortly after the coup were individuals (or entire families) that the new regime considered as potential opponents: leaders of social, political, or religious groups, professionals of every kind and other members of the educated class. Thus tribal and clan leaders, land owners, Islamists and Maoists, Western-educated teachers and traditional religious leaders all became victims of the regime. The numbers of those who were arrested and then disappeared and those known to have been executed or who died in prison runs into the tens of thousands during that twenty-month period.

In a great many of the cases, family members were given no reasons whatsoever for the arrests of their loved ones and for this reason, they were unable subsequently to obtain any information about their relative’s whereabouts or fate. In many cases those detained were executed soon after their arrest. In some cases relatives were able to meet with the detainees in prison, only to be told at some point that the detainee was no longer there. They became the disappeared. In other words, they were executed and their bodies buried in unknown mass graves.

The most prominent of the prisons holding detainees was Pul-i Charkhi, an enormous wheel-shaped facility that was still under construction at the time of the coup in 1978. The unfinished construction contributed to the appalling living conditions for the prisoners, in particular, the lack of water pipes and toilets. Built to hold up to 5,000 prisoners, it held at least 12,000 a year and a half after the coup.

Thousands are believed to have been executed there. Many of the prisoners also died of disease. Detainees were also held at other prisons throughout the country, some in more crowded facilities than Pul-i Charkhi.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights did not appoint a Special Rapporteur to monitor and report on human rights violations in Afghanistan until 1984. The Austrian professor Felix Ermacora was appointed then, and in a 1986 report he reviewed some of the incidents of the previous six years.

During his investigation, he received information concerning the disappearance of persons prior to 27 December 1978. It was alleged that some 9,000 persons had been killed, although Amnesty International refers to a list of 4,845 killed. As stated in his report to the General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur was informed that the number of persons considered to have disappeared before the amnesty in 1980 is, in fact, much higher than that previously announced. Recently the Special Rapporteur heard the testimony of a former member of the Ministry of Planning in Afghanistan, who was authorized in February 1980 to register all missing persons on the basis of information received from their relatives and friends. In three weeks over 25,000 persons between the ages of 18 and 60 had been registered. The missing persons were well educated and included medical doctors, government officials, military or religious people. An analysis was ordered by the minister in charge. In the view of the witness, well over 27,000 persons would have been registered missing if the registration procedure had not been stopped when it was discovered that the number of missing persons was much higher than originally foreseen.

In early 1979, organized resistance to the PDPA had gained some considerable ground in the Kunar province. By the month of March, this resistance, which was known as the mujahidin, had captured the district centers of Kunar, thereby leaving only the provincial capital, Asadabad within the control of the PDPA. Dagerwal Shahnawaz Shewani, of Paktia, was the governor of Kunar. The mujahidin forces had launched sustained attacks on Asadabad. The besieged provincial personnel contacted Kabul and requested urgent military assistance. The principal military forces deployed to take action against the resistance were the 444 Commando Force commanded by Saddiq Allamyar and a unit from the 11th Division.

On the night of March 6, 1979, a large force of mujahidin that had come from Darra Petch attacked Asadabad from the east. They entered the town through Kerala, a village on the eastern approaches to Asadabad. The mujahidin were able to penetrate the outer defences of the town, and mount an attack on the provincial headquarters. However, they were unable to overcome the main government posts and by morning, they had to retreat. The government forces were able to establish a cordon, trapping some of the retreating mujahidin within the town outskirts, in particular in the village of Kerala. Saddiq Alamyar and associates moved rapidly to organize a clean-up operation and reprisals.

The government immediately responded right after the mujahidin attack had taken place. However, press reports that appeared almost a year later had stated that the massacre took place on April 20, 1979.

The government forces began launching house to house searches in Kerala village. They also summoned a public meeting on open ground on the river bank, next to the bridge which links Kerala to Asadabad. It was there that the main massacre took place. According to the testimony, Saddiq Alamyar had ordered his troops to surround the crowd and then to fire indiscriminately into it. Testimony describes how Saddiq Alamyar’s forces then used a bulldozer to dig a trench to bury the casualties from the massacre by the bridge. According to witnesses, many of those buried were not dead but only wounded, and were then buried while still alive. The main mass grave is still visible in this location. The troops then mounted a search operation in the residential area of the village. They had orders to shoot on sight while they searched houses. The operation resulted in many civilian casualties, as they shot indiscriminately. Testimony describes the killing of women, children, the aged and infirm during this search operation. Two mass graves of the victims from this search operation were later located in the residential area. Accounts place the total number killed at over 1,000. The graves have never been exhumed, and most of the remaining residents who escaped the massacre fled to Pakistan.

The results of an investigation into the massacre consistently indicates that the provincial governor was not involved in the massacre. In fact, the perpetrators actively prevented the governor from intervening.

A significant factor in allowing these officers to commit a large scale massacre was their political links. The massacre took place at a time of revolutionary upheaval within the army. The troops responsible belonged to the Khalqi faction of the PDPA. Saddiq Alamyar in particular enjoyed the confidence of Amin. His brother, Sidique, was a cabinet minister. The relatively junior officers were able to command troop formations beyond their normal authority and they felt that they were empowered to act with impunity.

The Herat uprising marked a watershed in this period of the war, which had clearly demonstrated the weakness of the regime, the extent of popular dissent and the possibilities for popular mobilization. The apparent use of Soviet air power to crush the rebellion (a claim widely reported but never acknowledged by Soviet authorities), indicated growing concern in the Soviet Union about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. The Soviets hadn’t invaded Afghanistan at that time.

There are multiple versions of how the revolt began. It seems to have escalated from inappropriate-reaction to initially small scale and peaceful demonstrations. The uprising in Herat was unique in exacting a psychological blow to the regime, as the Khalq government came to realize that it faced opposition not only in the countryside but also in the cities.

It was not the agrarian reform measures that sparked the revolt, but the persecution of religious elites—pirs, ulema and other notables—that was decisive. Prior to the Herat uprising, there had been a series of smaller revolts in other villages in the province, but these were provoked by local resentment of regime decrees, including forced labor.

On March 15, 1979, the peasants of surrounding districts assembled at their mosques, and, at the word of the mullahs, converged on Herat, where they were joined by city dwellers in open revolt. When the revolt broke out, the 17th division of the army, stationed in Herat, mutinied, joining the insurgents and providing arms. In one day the insurgents had taken control of all government strongholds, and for a week the insurgents held the city, during which time they killed some leading PDPA officials, including the governor, Abdul Hai Yateem. All of the villages in the province were taken except Obeh and Zargun. According to witnesses, the situation was anarchic with widespread looting and attacks on residents suspected of being pro-government.

Two commanders from the 17th division, Sardar Khan and Ghulam Rasul Khan, along with Ismail Khan, played prominent roles on the military side, but lacked counterparts on the civilian side within the city.

Kabul sent the commander of the Qandahar (Kandahar) base, Sayyed Mukharam, to crush the rebellion. As his forces entered the city, aircraft from Shindand bombarded the city. The rebellion was crushed after several days of fierce fighting that included aerial bombardments and house-to-house searches. A commando unit from Qandahar operated under the command of Engineer Zarif. On the fourth night, many of the dead were buried in mass graves between Takht Saffar and Bagh-i Millat. According to one former resident, people called the area “the place of obscure martyrs.”

Once the government had retaken control of the city, it carried out mass arrests; many of those arrested disappeared and were apparently summarily executed. About 1,000 persons, if not more, were arrested during the period up to April 1979 following the uprising in the town of Herat. In some instances the arrests of political prisoners was followed by detention of their wives and children. The range of persons arrested extends from members of the fundamentalist religious groups to members of extreme left groups and embraced members of the government, students, businessmen, diplomats, academics and party dignitaries.

In 1992, a mass grave was discovered in Herat reportedly containing the remains of 2,000 persons.

The insurgency in Hazarajat was the first, and ultimately one of the most successful during the early PDPA regime. It began in October 1978 and by June 1979 the entire region with the exception of the center of Bamyan province had been captured. The government continued bombing the area, but until 1983, most of the territory remained under the control of the Shura-I Ittifaq-i Inqilab-i Islami, a council of Hazara leaders and commanders. Fighting in Bamyan itself continued, however, through the next decade.

The PDPA then began its military operation against the civilians in 1979.

The bombing began from the center of Bamyan province and ended in Foladi and Shaidan. It also continued in other places of the province. In one area, 400 houses were destroyed and a hundred people were killed in the area of Dasht-i Eisa Khan. The operation lasted one day. The soldiers fired everywhere and the bombing was steady. The houses of civilians were destroyed due to the bullets, rockets, artilleries and bombing. The houses were all burned down.

They fired at the houses with any heavy weapons they had. Afterwards, they looted thehouses. Sixty families were forced to emigrate to Iran and Pakistan because of it. The battalion commander of armed forces of that time was a lieutenant colonel from the Qargha Division 8 and his name was Nasrullah.

In 1979 for the first time the government organized a military operation on Azhdaha Mountain. People of Paghman were sent to central Bamyan for looting and burning the homes. They not only looted people’s property, but also did everything they could against the people. A lot of people from the area were killed, and a lot of people were imprisoned and they are still lost. Then some people left Bamyan and went to Behsud, Ghazni, and Kabul.

Protests against the regime began in earnest in Kabul in 1979. As in Herat, the arrests of the religious leadership and other prominent persons sparked the demonstrations. Witnesses interviewed by the Afghanistan Justice Project described a number of incidents of arrests, shootings of protesters and disappearances.

In July 1979, there were anti-government demonstrations uprising in the predominantly Hazara neighborhood of Chindawol in Kabul, consisting mainly of attacks on police stations. Thousands were arrested. According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the arrests of scholars and intellectuals from the Shi’a (Hazara and Qizilbash) communities in Kabul had provoked many of the demonstrations on July 3, 1979. Nabi Azimi makes the same observation, and notes some of the names of scholars, clerics and intellectuals of Shia and Hazara
people who disappeared.

The next article will be what happened to the Afghan people when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979.

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