The Dutch police have arrested an Afghan Dutchman on suspicion of war crimes. Sadeq Alamyar has been accused of involvement in one of the worst atrocities of the Afghan war: the killing of hundreds of men and boys in the village of Kerala in Kunar province by an elite unit, on the night of 19-20 April 1979. As Kate Clark reports, the ‘Kerala massacre’ as it became known, has been well documented by human rights investigators, but 36 years on, this is the first time a suspected perpetrator may finally face justice.
By April 1979, a year after the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) had seized power in a coup d’etat – what it called a communist revolution – the new regime was coming under pressure from a concerted and growing insurgency. In Kunar province, mujahedin had captured every district centre. Only the provincial capital, Asadabad, was left in government hands but it was besieged and under sustained attack. It was in the wake of one such attack which had been repelled by government forces, including the elite ‘444’ unit commanded by Sadeq Alamyar, that the Dutch police believe the killings in and around Kerala took place. (1) They have accused Alamyar of both ordering the killings and of having shot people himself:
In the wake of the [mujahedin] attack, government troops are said to have dragged large numbers of men and boys from their homes and to have killed them. Some are said to have been shot on the spot, others taken away by soldiers and killed elsewhere. Some survived being taken prisoner and were released the next day. Two of them, 15 year-old youths at the time, state that they were lined up by the troops but spared at the last minute because of their youthful appearance. The father of one of the boys and the elder brother and uncle of the other were allegedly executed while they stood beside them. After the murders the remaining women and children left Kerala. Their homes were vacant for years.
The Kerala massacre has been well-documented, including by press at the time (an original report here and a commentary on the same day here ) and the Afghanistan Justice Project (AJP). (2) The AJP published testimony from witnesses and survivors describing government forces conducting house to house searches in the village and then summoning a large public meeting on open ground on the river bank, next to the bridge which links Kerala to the nearby provincial capital. According to testimony gathered by the Afghanistan Justice Project, troops then fired into the gathering and used a bulldozer to dig a trench by the bridge to bury the bodies: “According to witnesses, many of those buried were not dead but only wounded, and were then buried while still alive. The main mass grave is still visible in this location.”
The Dutch police believe Alamyar fell from grace at the end of 1979 when the Soviets invaded and brought about an internal shift in power from the Khalqi branch of the PDPA to the Parchamis. They believe he was arrested and spent the 1980s in an Afghan jail, before being released and finding his way to the Netherlands where he sought – and was given – asylum.
A call for witnesses
The Dutch police investigation into Alamyar’s possible role in the massacre began after relatives of those killed in Kerala made a criminal complaint against him. “In the course of the investigation,” the police said, “residents of Asadabad, former mujahedeen fighters, fellow party members of [the suspect] and troops from the former Afghan government army were heard as witnesses.” The Dutch police have now also put out a new call for witnesses:
The Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office asks persons who were present in or around Kerala, Dam Kelai or Assadabad on or around 20 April 1979 and who are witnesses of events relating to the investigation to contact the Netherlands National Police.
Persons who were present at the time as government troops or government officials may have information that is especially important for the Dutch investigation.
Possible justice in Europe, not in Afghanistan
The Dutch police, which has a specialised war crimes unit, has a terrier-like record of pursuing suspected war criminals living in their country. In 2005, police investigations brought about the conviction, of two Afghan generals, Hesamuddin Hesam and Habibullah Jalalzoy, who had worked with the PDPA’s intelligence service, KhAD, for torturing detainees during the 1980s and 1990s. Another Dutch investigation into enforced disappearances in Afghanistan was closed prematurely in 2013 after the suspect, who was living in the Netherlands, died. However, as part of that investigation, the Dutch police uncovered and published an official Afghan government list of almost five thousand Afghans whom the state had forcibly ‘disappeared’ in custody during the first two years of the PDPA regime. After this publication, many families finally found out what had happened to their relatives and, decades after they were lost, could hold mourning ceremonies for them (see AAN reporting here). The importance of this cannot be underestimated. One relative, Nushin Arbabzadah, spoke of finding her uncle’s name on the death list. “I learned a lesson today,” she wrote “that without facts being established, there’s no freedom from the prison of history. Without justice, there’s no chance for peace.”
Other countries have also pursued suspected Afghan war criminals living in their territory, including the UK which put Hizb-e Islami commander Faryadi Sarwar Zardad, who had found asylum in Britain, on trial in London in 2005. He had controlled a notorious check post in Sarobi on the road from Kabul to Jalalabad and was found guilty of torture and hostage-taking.
War crimes, crimes against humanity, and torture are among the most serious crimes under international law. Since World War II, as the idea of ending impunity for such crimes gained steam, states have increasingly passed so-called ‘universal jurisdiction’ provisions into their domestic law. This allows them to prosecute individuals who have committed these crimes, even if the suspect is not a national of their state or if he or she has committed the crime somewhere else. Although in practice, exercise of these universal jurisdiction laws has been limited, the idea behind the move is that if war criminals can be prosecuted for their crimes anywhere in the world, this would start chipping away at impunity – especially since it is often difficult or dangerous to take such individuals to court in their home countries.
The irony is that if Sadeq Alamyar had been living in Afghanistan where he allegedly committed the war crimes, he would have been protected by the amnesty law of 2008. Passed by the Afghan parliament, this law gives a blanket amnesty from state prosecution to anyone accused of committing war crimes, including, it was suspected, quite a few of the MPs who voted for it. That legal protection extends even to Taleban and others committing war crimes now or in the future, should they seek reconciliation.
The Dutch police (3) have taken a very different approach:
War Crimes should not remain unpunished. The Netherlands are committed to not being a safe haven for war criminals and aims to fight against impunity for international crimes… fighting impunity is important to Afghans in Afghanistan and abroad. Impunity also plays a role in the perpetuation of conflicts. The Netherlands International Crimes Unit is therefore dedicated to tracking and prosecuting war criminals, even if this takes years.
Patricia Gossman, who together with AAN’s Sari Kouvo co-authored the definitive report on transitional justice in Afghanistan (or lack of it) and is now Human Rights Watch’s senior Afghanistan researcher, commented on how rare it is for the victims of 36-year-old crimes to get their day in court:
In Afghanistan’s wars, there have been thousands of killings, systematic torture, rapes, and a litany of other war crimes and grievous human rights abuses. Many Afghans have called for accountability, but few perpetrators have ever faced justice. Human Rights Watch has documented similar cases [to the Kerala massacre] over the years, and Alamyar’s prosecution would give hope to victims everywhere that they too might one day see justice.
(1) The Dutch police’s press release is also available in Dari and Pashto.
(2) A longer rendering of the Kerala massacre can be read in Edward Girardet’s book Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan (2012), online text access here. Girardet was one of the four reporters who went to the scene of the massacre and broke the story in early 1980.
(3) The International Crimes Team of the Netherlands National Police let it be known they can be reached by phone at +31-6-51287774, by email at [email protected] and via Facebook on www.facebook.com/dutcharrestkerala. Witnesses who send text messages or place a ‘missed call’ will be called back. Contact can be made in Dari, Pashtu, English, German or Dutch.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020