By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 25, 2006
KABUL, Afghanistan -- If there ever were lights in the makeshift courtroom where Asadullah Sarwari is on trial for his life, they are gone. The room is cold and cramped, the breath of the accused and his accusers swirling together in a faint gray haze.
"I t has been 27 years, and we don't know where our brothers and uncles and husbands and fathers are buried," Obeidullah el-Mogaddedi, 75, said during the trial last month, his voice cracking and his finger stabbing the air. "We want to know their fate."
Afghanistan's first war crimes trial has brought emotional pleas from witnesses and a lengthy catalogue of charges against Sarwari, a communist-era intelligence chief who is accused of ordering executions in the late 1970s. But no one who testified at the hearing saw him commit a crime.
Lack of evidence is one of many problems that have arisen as Afghanistan attempts to confront its violent past, conducting the first such trial after a quarter-century of conflict that claimed at least a million lives.
Until recently, the country had seemed more intent on burying its history than reliving it through potentially explosive investigations and trials. That is beginning to change. But as the process gets underway, it is revealing unpleasant truths about the present as well as the past.
In many ways, the Sarwari case has degenerated into a farce. The defendant, who has been imprisoned for 14 years, has had difficulty keeping an attorney because lawyers are pressured not to represent him. The prosecutors have presented scant evidence. Witnesses have spoken at length about what they heard from relatives or friends, but none has produced evidence.
Afghan human rights activists and international observers said the problems are symptomatic of a justice system that is undeveloped, corrupt, highly politicized and poorly equipped after decades of neglect and manipulation.
"This trial is so fundamentally flawed in so many ways, we're recommending it not continue," said Patricia Gossman, director of the Afghanistan Justice Project, an international group that has pushed for accountability. "Totally left out is any concern for the truth. It's not fair to the defendant or to the victims."
Yet the stakes are enormous. The Sarwari trial could set precedents for future war crimes cases in Afghanistan, a country in which years of civil war and turmoil have produced countless atrocities. Hundreds of former militia commanders could be brought to trial.
Afghan officials and their Western backers, especially the United States, have felt it is too soon to aggravate such raw wounds. Although surveys have shown that most Afghans want abusers brought to justice, officials have said peace must come before justice in a fledgling democracy with a weak government, well-armed private militias and deep ethnic and ideological divisions.
But now, with rural insurgents, drug traffickers and regional strongmen gaining power, some wonder whether postponing Afghanistan's reckoning with the past may be ruining its chance for a different kind of future.
"The people clearly link security with justice," said Nader Nadery, a member of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission. "They say that if there is no justice for crimes of the past, there will be impunity and therefore no peace."
In December, the cabinet endorsed the initiation of a truth-seeking process and a strategy for bringing war criminals to trial. But the plan is short on specifics, and it remains to be seen whether it will be implemented.
Countries such as South Africa and Chile have gone through similar processes, but the challenge here may be more complex. The country endured three conflicts between 1978 and 2001: the communist era and Soviet occupation, the civil war among Islamic militias known as mujaheddin, and Islamic Taliban rule. In each case, the line between oppressor and oppressed was blurred.
Afghanistan's problems are not behind it. Many of the figures accused of bombing cities, torturing adversaries and ravaging the populace have managed to stay in positions of authority. The new parliament, elected in September, includes leaders from nearly every group accused of past abuses.
"They were the same as me, and now they are back in power," Sarwari, a burly man in his fifties with a long, pale face, said glumly during an interview in the Kabul prison run by the national intelligence service. "If I hadn't been arrested, I would be in the parliament now."
In 1979, Sarwari was the government's intelligence chief during an especially brutal period of communist rule, when tens of thousands of people were taken into custody and never heard from again. In one week, more than 70 members of Mogaddedi's family disappeared.
Sarwari has been imprisoned since his arrest in 1992. But in many ways his trial is an accident. Late last year, prosecutors realized he had never been tried and hastily put a case together, despite widespread agreement that the judicial system was nowhere near ready to handle such trials.
"Sarwari is really the symbol of the beginning of violence against humanity in this country," said Rangin Dadfar Spanta, a top adviser to President Hamid Karzai. "War crimes did not begin with the mujaheddin or the Taliban. The beginning was Mr. Sarwari and his party and the coup of 1978."
After the bloody overthrow, the communist regime launched a merciless campaign to eliminate rivals. The Mogaddedi family, prominent members of a strain of Islamic mysticism known as Sufism, was among the thousands of victims. One night in 1979, dozens of armed men showed up at the family's Kabul compound and Sufi sanctuary.
According to witnesses, Sarwari supervised as first the men, then the women and children were taken.
Mary Aman, then a girl in the extended clan, recounted getting a hysterical call from her cousin, cut off in midsentence as the power failed. Soon, armed men were at the door. They took her brother Yahya, 17, who had dreamed of becoming a physician. She never saw him again.
"They put their guns to my chest and said, 'Don't scream or we'll kill you,' " said Aman, now 38. "I wish they had killed me that night. They took everyone else."
Six months later, the women and children were released. For years, rumors circulated that the Mogaddedi men had been sent to Siberia, pushed out of planes or killed and buried in mass graves. Family members want Sarwari to tell them what happened. Then they want him executed.
Despite the wealth of accusations against him, the chances of a conviction are in question, largely because so little evidence has been presented.
One trial witness said his uncle told him Sarwari had beaten 60 people to death with his bare hands. But that uncle is dead. Another witness named Abdul Samad, 33, began yelling at Sarwari, accusing him of killing his father and three uncles. When the judge asked whether he had any evidence, Samad replied, "No, I was too young."
Sarwari, given a chance to defend himself, said others in the government had committed the crimes. But he said his most recent attorney had quit, so the judge granted him more time to prepare his case. The trial was scheduled to resume Saturday.
In many respects, Sarwari's case is easier than those that could follow. He is in jail, and the communists have long since been discredited. But the mujaheddin leaders, who defeated the communist forces and then turned their guns on one another, are still in power -- revered by followers and despised by their victims.
The mujaheddin's capture of Kabul in 1992 ushered in some of the worst years of war, as rival factions rocketed the capital, fighting block to block for control. In southwest Kabul, it is nearly impossible to find anyone who did not lose a home, a limb or a relative.
Mohammed Raza was 7 when his father was struck dead by a rocket as he walked home from his job selling kebabs. Now 18, Raza has been weaving carpets for 11 years to support his family. He thinks he knows who killed his father: Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf, a militia commander who controlled a nearby hill.
But Sayyaf, a white-bearded Islamic scholar, was elected to the parliament in September. Later, he also came within a few votes of its leadership, losing to a former fellow commander.
"Maybe Sayyaf will be brought to justice," Raza said, "but I don't know how."