If there’s one thing Abdul Rasul Sayyaf knows, it’s how to guard an exposed flank.
As one of many warlords battling for control of Kabul in the early 1990s, Sayyaf ordered his fighters to protect their positions and press for advantage -- which they did by shelling civilian neighborhoods and slaughtering members of Afghanistan’s oppressed ethnic Hazara minority, human rights groups say.
Sayyaf is still watching his back. But now he’s doing it as a member of Afghanistan’s parliament.
Last month, he joined other lawmakers in approving a controversial amnesty bill that, in effect, shields him and other warlords-turned-politicians from government prosecution for alleged war crimes and atrocities such as rape and kidnapping.
Supporters call it a necessary step to unshackle Afghanistan from its violent past. But critics say the measure, signed by President Hamid Karzai, deals a blow to this country’s struggling democracy, allowing people accused of brutality to get off scot-free -- or, worse, remain in positions of power.
It was the latest sign that Afghanistan’s former warlords and commanders, some of whom continue to maintain private armies, are still among the country’s most powerful forces, despite Karzai’s famous declaration six years ago that the “era of warlordism is over.”
The new law has dismayed rights groups, the United Nations and Afghans such as Haji Aminullah, whose teenage son was killed by rebel fighters after being falsely labeled an informer.
“If I could face Karzai, see what I would tell him,” said Aminullah, 76. “I will never accept or forgive the people who killed my son.”
This is a nation whose last 25 years are steeped in blood from the rebel mujahedin’s battle against Soviet domination, the civil war among warlords and the U.S.-led overthrow of the fundamentalist Taliban in late 2001. Tens of thousands of Afghans died in the crossfire; whole swaths of Kabul, the capital, were reduced to rubble.
Many of those who led the fighting -- and allegedly allowed or committed such atrocities as summary execution, torture and rape -- now serve as government ministers or members of parliament. Some are acclaimed as heroes and have lashed out at anyone daring to question their wartime conduct.
“Whoever is against the mujahedin is against Islam, and they are the enemies of this country,” Sayyaf thundered at a Feb. 23 rally in support of the bill.
The demonstration drew 25,000 people to Kabul’s G Stadium, the scene of mutilations, stonings and other horrors during the Taliban’s reign of terror. Attending the rally were several prominent leaders whom Human Rights Watch has identified as among the worst perpetrators of abuses who should be brought up on charges of war crimes, including Sayyaf, Vice President Karim Khalili and Abdul Rashid Dostum, chief of staff to the head of the Afghan army.
The gathering was clearly intended as a signal to lawmakers that Afghanistan’s former warlords and commanders could still marshal vociferous and even fearsome support. Emphasizing that point, young men marched through the streets shouting, “Death to Malalai Joya!” a female legislator who has spoken out against the warlords.
The amnesty law was approved a few weeks later. It excuses the state from going after those suspected of human rights violations; individuals, however, are still permitted to file criminal charges against those they accuse of having harmed them.
That is not enough, critics say. It is the government’s duty to protect and stand up for its citizens, they argue, and the fact that many of the alleged offenders continue to hold power virtually guarantees that no individual will sue for justice, out of fear for his or her own safety.
“The state has a legal obligation to investigate, prosecute or extradite individual perpetrators of serious crimes such as serious breaches of the Geneva Conventions,” said Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. “A state cannot absolve itself of its responsibilities to take action against perpetrators of such crimes.”
Other countries have granted limited amnesties, including post-apartheid South Africa. But in that country, those seeking immunity from prosecution were required to first confess their offenses before a truth and reconciliation commission.
Karzai gave his assent to the bill at a time of mounting pressure from powerful factions within parliament. His office managed to add the provision about an individual’s right to file charges, amending what was virtually a blanket amnesty.
But disillusionment with his government still runs high as Afghans struggle with unemployment, lack of basic services such as electricity and with rising violence from an invigorated Taliban insurgency.
Some commentators describe the amnesty as crucial to building confidence among politicians who not long ago tried to kill one another on the battlefield. But rights activists scoff at that line of reasoning.
“The high level of corruption in the government today, the lack of confidence in government institutions, is a direct result of this policy of ‘Let’s forget and move on.’ People do not see a break with the past. They see the same faces in power,” said Ahmad Nader Nadery of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
For national reconciliation and reconstruction to take place, the country must face up to its past, not bury it, Nadery said, and a culture of impunity needs to give way to the rule of law.
In a survey by the commission three years ago, 76% of those questioned agreed that bringing war crimes suspects to account would bolster peace and stability. Ninety percent wanted the government purged of those involved in rights violations.
But rather than being sidelined, former rebel fighters and warlords were welcomed into the political system and have consolidated their power bases.
“Being realistic, we have never asked for immediate prosecution of these people,” Nadery said. “The immediate thing we want is the process of marginalization and removing these people from power. It would help good governance, help in the war on terror, help in the building of the government.”
It would also help mitigate the anger of Afghans such as Aminullah, a white-turbaned, white-bearded driver who is still haunted by what happened to his son 24 years ago.
The 16-year-old never came home from a trip to Pakistan to get a replacement prosthesis for the leg he lost in a childhood accident. His father says he finally learned from mujahedin commanders on both sides of the border that his son was handed over to the mujahedin during his journey by an unscrupulous relative who said the boy was an informant for Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed communist government. The youth had one leg, the relative claimed, because he lost the other fighting the mujahedin.
The accusations apparently sealed Hashmatullah’s doom. A rebel fighter admitted to Aminullah that the boy was executed in a prison run by the mujahedin near Peshawar, the northern Pakistani city at the other end of the road leading from Kabul through the Khyber Pass.
“At night, when I think about how they took such a decision to kill a 16-year-old who had only one leg ... it pains me,” Aminullah said.
The amnesty law, he says, has deprived him of hopes of justice through peaceful, legal means.
But those responsible for his son’s death -- especially the head of intelligence for the mujahedin, who he says allowed his son to be imprisoned and killed -- deserve the ultimate punishment, Aminullah declared, and he vowed to stop at nothing to bring about that retribution.
“I will do whatever it takes to find a way to take my revenge on them.”