Rights & Freedoms

Afghan War Criminal Zardad Freed: No protection for witnesses


Hezb-e Islami commander Sarwar Zardad photographed in the 1990s when he held a crucial checkpoint on the Kabul to Jalalabad and tortured travellers to extort money and kidnapped them for ransom. (Photograph courtesy of the Metropolitan Police)

Hezb-e Islami commander Sarwar Zardad photographed in the 1990s when he held a crucial checkpoint on the Kabul to Jalalabad and tortured travellers to extort money and kidnapped them for ransom. (Photograph courtesy of the Metropolitan Police)

One of the few Afghans convicted of war crimes has been released from a British jail and deported to Afghanistan. Faryadi Sarwar Zardad, a Hezb-e Islami commander, was convicted in 2005 of hostage-taking and torture. He preyed on people fleeing the civil war in Kabul in the mid-1990s, infamously keeping a ‘human dog’, a man who would attack people with his teeth. As AAN’s Kate Clark reports, despite the threat Zardad poses to the witnesses who testified against him, at least some were not informed by the UK government that he was coming back to Afghanistan; nor have any measures been put in place to protect them.

Zardad was released from jail just over half-way through his sentence, AAN understands, for ‘good behaviour’ and has now been deported from the UK to Afghanistan. He was due to arrive in Kabul today, 14 December 2016. Supporters were pictured putting up banners at Kabul International airport naming him a hero and welcoming him home; they included at least one non-uniformed, armed man (see here). The men had gathered just outside the terminal building, past the major security checks and beyond where normal people can go to welcome passengers. Some official authorisation must have been obtained. Pahjwok reported that hundreds of people had “thronged the airport” to welcome the convicted war criminal and “around 50 vehicles with tinted glasses and Zardad photographs left the airport at around 11am.” It was not clear if Zardad was transferred to the convoy or if, as the journalist Bilal Sarwary reported, he was taken into NDS custody at the airport. Whether that was for investigation or for his own protection was also not clear.

The crimes

Zardad’s crimes date back to the mid-1990s, when during a time of extreme brutality, he managed to become one of the most infamous commanders of the Afghan civil war. His rise to power came after the fall of the communist government in 1992. Fighting as a Hezb-e Islami commander, he captured positions outside the town of Sarobi on the main Kabul-Jalalabad road. In Kabul, there was vicious fighting between the mujahedin factions in Kabul and elsewhere in the country, with intense bombardments of the capital and the kidnapping, rape and murder of civilians; it prompted waves of people to flee the capital (for detail, see reports by the United Nations and the Afghanistan Justice Project’s. Zardad’s main activity at his Sarobi base during this period was preying on those trying to escape the conflict and find sanctuary, as well as traders trying to get supplies in to the capital.

When Hezb-e Islami positions fell to the Taleban, Zardad fled, arriving eventually in London on a false passport and claiming asylum. A BBC team tracked him down to a house in a south London suburb in 2000 and he came under police investigation. He was arrested in 2003 and put on trial at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) in London in 2004. Jurors were unable to reach a verdict and a second trial was ordered for the following year.

The Trial

Zardad was not British and his crimes had not been committed on British soil, but under the UN Convention Against Torture, Britain viewed itself as obliged to investigate and prosecute a suspected torturer who had come within its jurisdiction. This was a landmark trial and the attorney general himself, Lord Goldsmith, lead the prosecution. Zardad’s crimes were so “merciless” and such “an affront to justice”, he said, that they could be tried in any country.

At his second trial, Zardad was found guilty of conspiracy to torture and take hostages and sentenced to two prison terms, each of 20 years, to be served concurrently. As I reported at the time:

He and his men would carry out beatings and torture in order to extort money from people or imprison them until their relatives paid ransoms. One witness said he was held for four months and beaten so frequently that his family failed to recognise him. Travellers on the Sarobi road have recalled being terrorised by one of Zardad’s men who was named Zardad’s Dog: he would attack people with his teeth and hands, clawing and biting their ears, nose or testicles, if ordered to do so. Another threat was to be forced to kiss a corpse which had been allowed to decompose, swell up and blacken over a period of days. (1)

The Guardian also reported on the verdict:

[Witnesses] told how they had been imprisoned in containers for months on end, chained up and repeatedly beaten. Zardad himself allegedly executed one driver and a witness told how, aged seven, he witnessed his father’s ear being cut off by Zardad’s men. His father died of a heart attack three days later. Another witness… said [Zardad’s human] “dog” was set upon the occupant of a fruit lorry after it was stopped at the checkpoint. Ordered to hand out the fruit to Zardad’s soldiers the victim was too slow and was bitten by the long-haired man known as the “dog”. “I saw it with my own eyes,” the witness said. 

At his sentencing, the judge, Justice Tready, told Zardad that for a period of over three years, “as a powerful warlord, [you] presided over a brutal regime of terror in areas under your control. You represented the only real form of authority, law and government in the areas under your control and you grossly abused your power.”

The Witnesses

Zardad’s conviction (see the legal details of the case here) “hinged on credible and coherent witness testimony” (see AAN report here). 16 Afghans gave evidence, mostly by video link, but three in person. Humanitarian aid officials who were working in Afghanistan at the time also gave evidence, providing a clear description of Zardad’s base and helping to establish the fact that Zardad had controlled it, thereby corroborating the testimony of the torture victims.

British police, reported The Guardian, had “travelled to Afghanistan under armed guard to interview victims, many of whom were in fear of their lives after receiving threats to stop them giving evidence.” It also quoted Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist branch, who lead the investigation, saying, “We had to find witnesses in remote parts of Afghanistan and give them the confidence to come forward to give evidence in a British court,” he said. The verdict shows what can be achieved, and that the UK is not a safe haven for people like Zardad.”

Some witnesses were not informed of Zardad’s release and imminent arrival and, as far as AAN knows, no measures have been put in place to protect them. AAN understands the British police had tried to contact all witnesses, spoken directly to some but failed to locate others. A British Embassy spokesperson told AAN it was “usual police process is to notify all witnesses before the release of any convicted criminals.”

Given Zardad’s record of violent abuses and the fact that he continues to have friends and relatives in high places, the threat that he will try to revenge himself on witnesses and their families is credible. Human Rights Watch’s Afghanistan researcher, Patricia Gossman, told AAN:

Zardad’s trial and conviction in the UK was seen as a signal case for universal jurisdiction and a very rare case of justice in the long history of war crimes and human rights abuse in Afghanistan. In cutting his sentence in half and – most importantly – failing to take into consideration the security of witnesses who bravely testified at the trial and to whom Zardad poses a credible threat, the UK has set back justice in Afghanistan and betrayed Zardad’s victims. One has to wonder why any Afghan would give statements to the ICC [International Criminal Court] or speak up for human rights when this is the support they get. (2) 

AAN put in calls to the Ministry of Interior, NDS and the Presidential Palace but could get no comment on government plans. However, it seems top-level meetings were taking place today to decide what to do with Zardad. He is not without influential friends and some tribal backing from among Ahmadzais who will be pushing for his release. Whether or not the government plans to establish mechanisms to ensure he cannot harm witnesses is also not apparent.

 The conviction of Zardad was a landmark case, helping to establish that the most severe crimes can be prosecuted anywhere. If witnesses cannot be assured that they will be protected from reprisal, however, it will become impossible to get this sort of justice in the future.

 

 

(1) Published by Middle East International (not available online).

(2) In November 2016, the International Criminal Court, said it would be taking a decision “imminently” on whether or not to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity which allegedly have taken place on Afghan soil since 2003, perpetrated by the Taleban, Afghan government forces and the United States military and CIA. For more detail, see AAN reporting here.

 

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Thematic Category: Rights & Freedoms