November 5, 2004
Habib Rahiab put his life on the line to help promote justice and human rights in Afghanistan. It’s a testimony to the impact of his work that many Afghan warlords, with all their weapons and men, still fear the work that Habib has done.
John Sifton, Afghanistan Researcher at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - Habib Rahiab, a human rights activist who was forced to flee Afghanistan because of his work documenting human rights abuses and advocating that Afghan warlords implicated in past war crimes be brought to justice, will receive Human Rights Watch’s highest award on November 9.

Rahiab worked with Human Rights Watch during 2002 and 2003. He traveled extensively throughout Afghanistan, interviewing hundreds of witnesses and victims of human rights abuses. Rahiab helped to document abuses by the U.S.-led coalition during the war against the Taliban and in subsequent operations, and abuses by the numerous warlord militias who have taken over Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s defeat.

“Habib Rahiab put his life on the line to help promote justice and human rights in Afghanistan,” said John Sifton, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s a testimony to the impact of his work that many Afghan warlords, even with all their weapons and men, are afraid of his efforts.”

Rahiab, a native of Ghazni province in southeast Afghanistan, was a law student at Balkh University in Mazar-e Sharif when the Taliban seized the city in 1997. He fled the city on foot, eventually moving to Pakistan, where he worked in a minority rights group and taught in a school for refugees. He returned to Afghanistan immediately after the collapse of the Taliban, and started working with Human Rights Watch. He also founded and served as a senior member of several civil society and minority rights’ groups.

In 2002 and 2003, Rahiab helped research five major reports with Human Rights Watch, including a March 2004 study on the abuse of Afghan detainees by U.S. forces, which documented abuses similar to those that later surfaced in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Rahiab conducted hundreds of interviews for two vital reports in 2002 on the deplorable human rights situation in the western province of Herat. The two last reports identified Herat's governor, Ismail Khan, as a major human rights abuser and may have played a role in his recent dismissal by President Hamid Karzai.

Immediately after the fall of the Taliban, Rahiab researched the use of cluster bombs during the U.S.-led air strikes, and documented the disproportionately harsh effect of such munitions on civilians. The report was instrumental in convincing the U.S. Air Force to drastically reduce use of cluster bombs in populated areas.

In 2003, Rahiab also interviewed civilians about abuses by Afghan warlords for the Human Rights Watch report, “Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing for Us”: Human Rights Abuses in Southeast Afghanistan. After the report was released, several Afghan warlords and government officials publicly condemned the report and targeted local human rights activists. The Afghan intelligence service, or Amniat-e Melli, started searching for Rahiab. One local warlord in the east of the country sent 17 gunmen to Rahiab’s house to arrest or possibly kill him.

Rahiab and his family fled Afghanistan in late 2003, initially to Pakistan. Rahiab was granted asylum by the United States in early 2004 and was admitted to the Human Rights Program at Harvard University with assistance from Scholars at Risk, an organization dedicated to helping persecuted academics, the Merck Foundation, the Mike Jendrzejczyk Emergency Fund for Asian Human Rights Activists, and Harvard University.

For the past 25 years, Afghans have suffered through foreign occupation, civil war, and the brutal rule of the Taliban. Some of the most serious atrocities occurred in the early 1990s, when different mujahedin factions battled over control of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, before the Taliban gained control. Many senior military and police commanders in Afghanistan today are implicated in past abuses.

The primary focus of Rahiab’s current work is bringing perpetrators of past war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan to justice.

“As many Afghans regularly say, Afghanistan cannot be stable or peaceful unless its past is addressed,” Rahiab said. “There are too many abusers and war criminals walking around Afghanistan – and many are implicated in new abuses today. Afghans want these gunmen out of power.”

Rahiab has worked closely with Human Rights Watch documenting abuses by Afghan mujahedin forces in the early 1990s. At Harvard University he is now researching and writing articles about how persons implicated in past crimes—whether Taliban, mujahedin, or members of Soviet-backed forces in the 1990s—might be put on trial or, at least, disqualified from serving as government employees or officials and running for political office.

After his studies conclude, Rahiab hopes to continue his legal and human rights studies and return to Afghanistan to work as a human rights activist.

“The future of Afghanistan will depend on courageous activists like Habib,” said Sifton.

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