Afghan Convicted of War Crimes

Asadullah Sarwari, left, at his trial in Kabul, was convicted in the deaths of hundreds of people during the communist era of the late 1970s.
Asadullah Sarwari, left, at his trial in Kabul, was convicted in the deaths of hundreds of people during the communist era of the late 1970s. (By Rafiq Maqbool -- Associated Press)
By Griff Witte and Javed Hamdard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 26, 2006

An Afghan court convicted a former intelligence chief and sentenced him to death yesterday for killing hundreds of people during an especially bloody period of communist rule in the country's first war crimes trial following more than two decades of conflict.

Asadullah Sarwari, who has been in prison since 1992 for crimes committed in the late 1970s, sat in silence as the verdict was read. Many in the courtroom, which was packed with dozens of people whose relatives were abducted by the government and never seen again, applauded and cried out, "Allahu Akbar!" or "God is great!"

The court said Sarwari should be hanged for his crimes. Sarwari, who blamed the disappearances on others in the government, said he would appeal.

"The government at the time was like a machine, and I was just a part of the machine," Sarwari, a burly man of about 60 with a scraggly white beard, told the court.

Sarwari was cleared of a second charge of attempting to orchestrate a coup against the mujaheddin government of the early 1990s.

Afghan human rights advocates and international observers had condemned the trial as a sham, noting that in previous sessions Sarwari did not have an attorney, prosecutors presented little evidence and witnesses testified to what they were told by others but not what they had seen. Sarwari lacked representation again yesterday; several of his appointed attorneys quit under pressure not to defend a man whom many Afghans revile.

The session yesterday, however, included emotional testimony from several people who said they had been arrested by Sarwari's forces or saw the arrests. Members of the Mogaddedi family, a prominent Afghan clan, testified that dozens of people were taken from their family compound one night in January 1979 and never heard from again. Prosecutors also showed a videotape that featured documents in which Sarwari allegedly ordered executions.

During Sarwari's year-long tenure as intelligence chief under the communist government that came to power in a 1978 coup, thousands of people were arrested and subsequently disappeared. Educators, religious leaders and political opponents were targeted as the communists attempted to consolidate their control of the country. The communist coup precipitated two decades of war in Afghanistan.

Since the overthrow of the repressive Taliban government in 2001 and the emergence of democracy, Afghans have wrestled with how to confront their brutal past. Most Afghans -- 76 percent, according to one survey -- want war criminals brought to justice. But government officials and their Western backers, particularly the United States, have tried to avoid revisiting Afghanistan's past through trials and investigations.

Some officials have argued that the country needed peace first and would hold trials when it was stable enough to withstand them. Many suspected war criminals remain in positions of power, and any move to bring them to justice would spur more violence, the officials say. The Sarwari trial is among the first indications that this attitude is beginning to change.

Hamdard reported from Kabul.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company