Blast Goes Unsolved as U.N. Agencies Probing Alleged Crime Turn on Each Other

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

UNITED NATIONS -- It was 10:30 p.m. in Kabul, and Shkelquim Sina had just e-mailed his wife goodnight when an explosion ripped through his hotel bedroom, obliterating a wall, scorching nearly half his body and leaving the United Nations weapons expert barely clinging to life.

The alleged culprit was not a terrorist attacker but a U.N. colleague: Within 24 hours, Robert Shaw, a former weapons specialist for British intelligence, had been turned over to Afghan authorities by U.N. officials on suspicion of attempting to murder his Albanian colleague.

The October 2006 incident is one of the most egregious alleged crimes to have occurred within the U.N.'s ranks, but the ensuing investigation unraveled, leaving both men with shattered lives and damaged reputations with virtually no hope of having their names cleared.

Hundreds of pages of confidential U.N. documents reviewed by The Washington Post, as well as interviews with those involved in the incident, demonstrate how U.N. agencies turned against each other as they struggled to determine who was responsible for the explosion. The case highlights the challenges the United Nations faces in policing the conduct of more than 150,000 U.N. civilian officials and uniformed peacekeepers around the world.

Since 2006, more than 850 peacekeepers have been sent home after allegations of corruption, sexual misconduct, gold smuggling and arms trafficking. Last year, just seven of those cases had been resolved; the most serious punishments were dismissal or up to 40 days in a military jail. In a rare case of more severe punishment, Nigerian military authorities last month sentenced 27 Nigerian peacekeepers to life in prison for mutiny in Liberia after they protested the theft of their U.N. salaries by their own officers, news reports said. The officers were demoted.

"We don't know" how many perpetrators get punished, said Alan Doss, the U.N. special representative in Congo. "Clearly, the reporting system needs improvement. We don't get the kind of systematic feedback we should be getting."

Lacking its own police force, the United Nations relies on a combination of local law enforcement authorities, internal U.N. investigators and outside consultants with varying degrees of competence and limited power to enforce their findings.

Early last year, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon proposed establishing a U.N. anti-crime squad to respond more aggressively to allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct in peacekeeping missions. But the initiative encountered broad opposition from member states, including the United States, whose governments feared it would place too much power in U.N. hands.

Even so, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has said that improving U.N. management of humanitarian and peacekeeping operations is one of her top priorities.

Dueling Investigations

Shaw was sipping a beer at the British Embassy in Kabul on Oct. 12, 2006, when he and his friends heard the explosion that injured Sina. Shaw quickly emerged as the prime suspect because he had been seen by a maid entering Sina's room several hours before the blast.

He was jailed for 24 hours and released into the custody of a former colleague in the British military. He was arrested a second time after U.N. lawyers furnished allegations that Shaw and Sina had been involved in a conspiracy to smuggle weapons and had quarreled. A U.N. crime scene analysis concluded that the explosive had been planted under Sina's bed.

Shaw's employer, the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), launched its own investigation, led by a South African police investigator, Frank Dutton, who reconstructed the crime scene a month after the explosion. He concluded that a Russian 82mm mortar shell had detonated not under the bed but next to it, suggesting that Sina had brought it into the room himself.

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