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Last Updated: Friday, 8 October, 2004, 18:52 GMT 19:52 UK
Modern court makes legal history

Daniel Sandford
BBC home affairs correspondent

Court Nine at the Old Bailey is not one of those oak-panelled courts steeped in history. It is in the new section of the building.

It is not one of those places where you can almost hear the echoes of famous trials fought by legendary advocates. It is just a regular, modern courtroom.

Faryadi Sarwar Zardad
Zardad denies the charges

But with this torture trial it is being written into the legal history books.

The prosecution team, led by the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith himself, believe this is the first time in the world a foreign national is being tried on charges relating to torturing victims who are also foreign nationals, in a land thousands of miles away.

Apart from the traditional wigs and gowns being worn, the courtroom looks modern and hi-tech.

Television screens are everywhere. Six for the jury, four for the barristers, three large ones for the press and public.

Many of the witnesses will only be seen by the jury on these screens as they give evidence by video-link from a sort of cyber-witness box, set up in the British embassy in Kabul.

The jurors have been told to treat evidence given in this way exactly the same as if it were given in London.

The Attorney General gave the jury a short lesson in Afghan history to help them understand the case.

If the offences had taken place in Britain this trial would be a sensation

He explained that Sarobi, the town where the torture is alleged to have taken place, is at a strategic point on the Kabul-Khyber Pass road.

It is near the spot where the British Army lost 15,000 men on the retreat from Kabul in 1842.

"Some history then and perhaps some history today," Lord Goldsmith said.

He produced several maps which were projected onto the jurors' screens.

His colleague James Lewis QC used a laser pen to point out how the Kabul-Khyber Pass road was a vital supply route, and how Sarobi is at an important "choke point" on the road.

Medieval barbarity

Faryadi Sarwar Zardad, painted by the prosecution as a kind of junior Afghan warlord, is accused of conspiracy to torture and take hostages between 1991 and 1996.

But the simple charges, which he denies, hide the ferocity of the horrific allegations.

If the offences had taken place in Britain this trial would be a sensation.

Zardad is accused of running a checkpoint where people were tied to chairs, hit with rifle butts, stabbed with bayonets, and thrown like sacks into an old shipping container.

Court generic image
The trial is historic for the UK and possibly the first of its kind globally
One witness has claimed that prisoners were hung from the ceiling and beaten until they lost control of their functions. Another will describe how his father had his ear cut off and died of a heart attack three days later.

Medieval barbarity recounted in a 21st century setting, in an historic trial.

It also seems likely this is the first case in British legal history in which a 'human dog' has been an important part of the allegations.

The prosecution say he was kept in chains and would bite people and eat testicles under the orders of soldiers at the checkpoint.

'Mystery'

The man was mentioned several times in the course of the first day.

At lunch one juror sent a note to the judge, Mr Justice Treacy, asking what the prosecution meant by a 'human dog.'

Asked to explain the phrase, Lord Goldsmith said: "Let's leave it to the evidence that we will hear to give you further clarification."

Anthony Jennings QC, Zardad's barrister, said: "You would expect if such an individual existed there would be countless individuals to come forward to tell you about his existence. We will see."

A little bit of mystery thrown into the mix of what was already a truly extraordinary trial.


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