(New York) - The trial of Assadullah Sarwari, who was sentenced to death on Sunday for his role in heading Afghanistan’s brutal intelligence agency during the Communist government of the late 1970s, violated basic fair trial and due process standards, Human Rights Watch said today. Sarwari was convicted by a special National Security tribunal and has the right to appeal his sentence within 20 days.
Human Rights Watch said that the case highlights the need for urgent judicial reform in Afghanistan and the establishment of a proper system of accountability for all those who committed human rights abuses over the past 25 years.
“A notorious human rights abuser has been convicted but his trial was so flawed that it actually represents a setback for the cause of justice in Afghanistan,” said Sam Zarifi, research director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “The court of appeals should throw out this conviction and show that in today’s Afghanistan, the rule of law applies, even to the most notorious former leaders.”
Sarwari has been detained since 1992, when he was taken by the Afghan Northern Alliance forces who won control of Kabul after the fall of the Communist government. He was held without trial or even clear charges until December 26, when he was put on trial accused of responsibility for the killing of hundreds of Afghans.
Sarwari did not have legal counsel at his trial because he could not afford a lawyer and the court could not find any lawyers willing to represent him. The trial was summary in nature, taking only one day for the prosecution and defense to present their cases. Because the proceedings were conducted so quickly, Sarwari did not have adequate time to question witnesses or challenge the evidence against him. While Sarwari challenged the authenticity of a document he allegedly signed ordering illegal executions, no evidence was offered to show it was authentic and the court turned down his request for a forensic test. The National Security Court that conducted the trial is a special branch established by the Supreme Court, but its exact mandate and procedures are unclear.
“The thousands of victims of the Communist government are desperate to see justice done, but this can only be accomplished through fair trials and due process of law,” Zarifi said. “This case shows that Afghanistan needs a judicial system that can properly handle cases related to the human rights violators who have brutalized Afghanistan for the past three decades.”
The Sarwari trial was the first attempt to hold a senior government official accountable for past crimes in Afghanistan. In light of the many failings of the trial, Human Rights Watch called on the Afghan government to immediately implement a recently approved blueprint for transitional justice. In late 2005, the Afghan cabinet approved a plan for establishing a system of transitional justice and accountability. The five-part, multi-year plan envisages a comprehensive approach that includes establishing documentation centers and museums to chronicle the human rights violations of the past three decades. The plan also sets up oversight panels to prevent human rights abusers from holding senior government positions, and sets out the possibility for pursuing past abusers in court.
Because Afghanistan’s criminal code does not yet have provisions for addressing gross human rights abuses of the past, the charges against Sarwari did not address allegations of systematic human rights violations leveled at the Communist government.
“Afghanistan must not establish a bad precedent with the first trial of a past human rights abuser,” Zarifi said. “Sarwari’s case should be referred as soon as possible to a transitional justice process that can properly address the allegations against him as well as other figures from Afghanistan’s bloody history.”
Human Rights Watch called on President Hamid Karzai to publicly unveil the transitional justice action plan immediately and to ensure that the government addresses the many well-known human rights violators who still hold high positions in the government and parliament, and not just those like Sarwari who no longer have political patrons.
In recent surveys and national consultations, the Afghan people have consistently favored achieving accountability for past human rights abuses through a judicial process that is led by Afghans with significant international support to the country’s weakened judiciary. However, this trial did not involve any international assistance and did not come close to meeting international standards.
Human Rights Watch also expressed grave concern about the use of the death penalty in Afghanistan. Since 2001, over 25 death sentences have been sent to the president’s office for a decision on execution or commutation, but Afghanistan has carried out the death penalty only once, when a low-level Taliban commander was executed in October 2004.
“It is troubling to see the Afghan government resort to the death penalty without proper judicial safeguards, even after thousands of Afghans were executed by various governments over the past 25 years,” said Zarifi. “As a matter of principle, Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, but in a country with such a weak and politicized judiciary it is unthinkable that it should be imposed.”