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.
"There is no evidence that Mr. Shaw detonated the explosion," Dutton wrote in a January 2007 report. "The evidence supports the conclusion that Mr. Sina had taken ammunition including a mortar shell into his room and that this had accidentally detonated -- probably by falling off his bed."
Dutton contended that U.N. officials had rushed to judgment, disseminated incriminating falsehoods and suppressing evidence that might have exonerated Shaw, including testimony from a colleague of Sina's who asserted that the Albanian had frequently kept munitions in his room. "I seriously doubt it was Shaw," the witness, Barbara Sihira, said in an interview with The Post.
Dutton also faulted the U.N. mission's lawyers for failing to ensure that Shaw had adequate legal counsel and for pressuring the Afghan police to arrest him after a preliminary police investigation established that there was not enough evidence to hold him. The lawyers' actions, he wrote in a June 2007 report, were "irresponsible and resulted in the wrongful detention of a staff member under horrendous circumstances." Shaw was held for more than 30 days in a detention center with suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives.
Dutton's probe showed that Shaw had improperly transferred weapons, including two surface-to-air missiles, from U.N. custody to a British weapons depot where he previously worked. The transfer was authorized by Sina and two other U.N. officials. Still, Dutton did not conclude that the men were attempting to smuggle the weapons and said the allegations of a feud were overblown. Dutton also said Shaw had unknowingly entered Sina's room after asking a maid for a bathroom.
In the weeks following the explosion, Dutton and other UNDP officials helped Shaw get out of prison and out of the country, and a top UNDP official assured Afghan authorities that Shaw had not been involved in the incident.
The U.N. peacekeeping department -- which oversees U.N. operations in Afghanistan -- maintains that Dutton misinterpreted key facts and improperly acted as an advocate for Shaw in the course of his investigation. "There were real weaknesses in the investigation," said Phil Cooper, a former top U.N. peacekeeping official.
The head of the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services, Inga-Britt Ahlenius, also rejected Dutton's findings in a July 2007 memo, concluding that the world body's failure to secure the original crime scene -- which was renovated and repainted before Dutton began his work -- made it impossible to "ascertain the origin of the explosion."
U.N. lawyers contend that Dutton naively accepted Shaw's word that he had inadvertently gone into Sina's room to use the bathroom. They also noted that Shaw had once been seen by a journalist stealing a key to room where Sina previously lived.
Shaw initially denied possessing the key. But in a Post interview he acknowledged that the key had turned up in his personal belongings, saying it had been planted there by someone seeking to frame him. He also said the smuggling allegations were concocted by his superiors in retaliation for having raised concerns about the safety record of a British de-mining organization that was later involved in the accidental deaths of Afghan minors.'My Name Is Mud'
The United Nations typically severs relations with suspects, and sometimes even victims, to limit the damage to the organization's reputation. Shaw and Sina, both highly regarded weapons technicians, saw their contracts terminated within months of the explosion, and they were forced out of the United Nations.
"My name is mud," said Shaw, who is suing the UNDP for $5 million, saying it suppressed evidence that he was innocent. He imagines the conversations prospective employers might have: "Have you not heard? He blew someone up."
Last year, the UNDP offered to pay $50,000 in compensation to Shaw with no acknowledgment of liability.
Sina said the UNDP ended his contract while he was recovering from the explosion. He is seeking unspecified financial compensation from the organization, saying his injuries and trauma have left him incapable of supporting his wife and two children.
"Never, never as an ex-ammunition technical officer, as an ex-major in the army, would I have made that stupid mistake to keep ammunition in my room," he said. "How can the U.N. leave this case orphaned?"