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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 December, 2003, 00:48 GMT
Afghan war criminals still unpunished

Paul Anderson
BBC correspondent in Kabul

Policherki prison near Kabul
Thousands disappeared in Kabul's feared Pul-e-Charkhi prison
Human rights groups in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of any process to investigate crimes against humanity committed during the country's 23 years of war.

So far there has been no move to forge national reconciliation by prosecuting those accused of the most heinous crimes.

They range from the organisers of the murderous prisons in the Soviet-backed puppet government in the 1980s to the warlords involved in the 1992-1996 civil war against the Taleban.

Their crimes were no less appalling than those committed in the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda.

Yet no-one has ever counted the deaths in Afghanistan.

In the civil war, the rival mujahideen commanders relentlessly shelled civilian districts of Kabul from mortar positions in the hills surrounding the capital. Thousands were killed.

People say if we don't deal with past crimes there is no peace
Nader Nadery, Afghan Human Rights Commission

The ethnic Hazara minority, themselves victims of mass killings by the Taleban and ethnic Tajiks from the Northern Alliance, carried out what was termed "the dance of the dead".

Victims had their heads severed while they were standing. Their headless bodies stumbled around, while the life flowed out of them.

But according to Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, no investigations have been carried out into these or any other incidents.

It is devising a blueprint for dealing with the past and establishing transitional justice in Afghanistan.

"Every day people are coming to the commission seeking justice," say Nader Nadery, the official in charge of justice issues at the commission.

"People link justice with peace. They say if we don't deal with past crimes there is no peace."

'Culture of impunity'

Just ask the villagers in Shomali Plain, a short drive from Kabul.

The Taleban conducted a scorched earth policy, razing whole communities to the ground and driving out the inhabitants or killing those who dared to stay. Hundreds perished.

The rubble and bullet-ridden mud and brick houses still stand on the plain, testament to the brutality that one village elder, Mahmad Ajan, says cannot go unpunished.

Soviet troops leaving Afghanistan
Many want war crimes from the Soviet invasion pursued

"I lost five members of my family," he says.

"If there is to be peace in this world, of course we should bring those who committed heinous crimes to account."

The problem is, some of the former commanders who might find themselves accused sit in positions of office or still have power, and their co-operation is seen as crucial to the first phase of Afghanistan's peace process.

That has put them out of reach, according to the seasoned analyst, Andrew Wilder, from the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit.

"A very short-term compromise was made in 2001 after the collapse of the Taleban that we need stability, therefore let's bring all these warlords into the tent and keep them on our side," Mr Wilder says.

"We created this culture of impunity, where you can get away with anything and never be held to account if you are powerful and influential. Unless we address that and push more of a justice agenda, I don't think we are going to get peace and stability here."

The public is primarily concerned with putting an end to current abuses
Jean Arnault, UN in Afghanistan

Those assisting the political process in Afghanistan deny they have turned a blind eye in the larger interests of peace.

Jean Arnault is the United Nations deputy special representative in Afghanistan.

"We tried about a year ago to look at national conciliation," he said.

"What we have found is a general public primarily concerned with putting an end to current abuses; particularly about the role the international community can play in making sure those commanders who are still ruling valleys and regions are brought to justice."

What some of those commanders in the valleys and beyond are doing is running their own armies and private prisons, extorting money and grabbing land.

The disappeared

Many people say that if past crimes are ever to be accounted for, the process should stretch back to the invasion of the Soviet Union and the brutal treatment of dissidents meted out by its puppet administrators.

Hanif Sherzad's father was considered a dissident as an army officer who served the deposed king.

He was taken to the feared Pul-e-Charkhi prison, built in splendid isolation near Kabul.

No one can hear the screams there. Thousands just disappeared.

It is believed many are buried in yet-to-be-unearthed mass graves nearby.

"We used to have to take clothes out of the prison once a week to wash them. By smelling his clothes my mother could tell if they were my father's and so know if he was still alive," says Mr Sherzad.

His father was released but died two months later after his health deteriorated sharply.

"These are crimes which should also be investigated. Not just the civil war and the Taleban."

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