Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Rights and Freedoms

Where criminals forgive themselves

Fabrizio Foschini 5 min

The Afghan Civil Society Forum (ACSFo) today released a report titled ‘How People Define Violence and Justice in Afghanistan (1958 – 2008)’. Prepared by ACSFo with the funding of the Heinrich-Bӧll-Stiftung, the report provides a valuable insight into Afghans’ perceptions of these two concepts, drawn by their extensive experience of at least the first of them in the last decades. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini attended to the presentation and is currently enjoying the read, though not a merry one.

This is no misprint: It is not 1978 but really 1958 the year with which the period considered by the research starts. It may sound strange, although, as a student of history, I harbour no complaints about it (*). As the second headline ‘A First Step on a Long Journey’ reads, the aim of the report is that of providing a base for future research or enquiries by human rights workers on past crimes and ‘to bring to light the darkest realities from the point of view of the respondent so that measures are adopted to prevent its reoccurrence’ (download ACSFo report here; see our previous blog on the UN mapping report on war crimes here). It is, indeed, problematic to believe that events occurred during the monarchy or president Daud’s tenure can be considered for any initiative for a comprehensive justice or reconciliation program in the future, but their inclusion will hopefully procure at least a shock to foreigners used to consider Afghanistan’s existence – in the best case – only from 1978 onwards, when it stumbled into the radar of geopolitics.

The authors claim that subsequent human rights abuses find their roots even in the stable periods of Zaher Shah (1933-73) and Daud (1973-78), when political and social participation, not to speak about education, were a privilege for few, ethnic discrimination (especially against Hazaras) was systematic and imprisonment of intellectuals common. The choice may be also justified by the report basing itself, and being intended for, the Afghan people and its collective memory, which needs not limit itself at some strategic junctures, but covers the experience of whole lives.

The report’s structure follows that of the survey, presenting the answers gathered for each question both countrywide and in provinces’ breakdown. The quantitative aspects of the research are conveyed by the effective graphic layout, but the report features a value added in its providing useful introductions and qualitative analysis to each topic faced by the interviews (corruption, destructions, killings, displacement, women rights, freedom of press, transitional justice, constitution, etc). This helps putting in context the forcedly schematic dimension of the questionnaire, and renders ghastly glimpses of what the Afghans experienced firsthand for more than 30 years.

Some of the report’s appendixes explain in details the criteria followed in organizing the research. ACSFo carried it out in nine provinces (Kabul, Kandahar, Badakhshan, Bamian, Herat, Nangrahar, Paktia, Balkh and Fariab) with 400 interviewees in each. The 36 questions are divided into five sections with different answering options, ranging from simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’, questions implying choice among a set of possibilities and open questions for the respondents to elaborate. The questions are not at all predictable or banal, and sometimes really intriguing, like the first one, wondering point-blank ‘Is unemployment a cause of violence and human rights violations?’

The other appendixes offer an useful, albeit grim, handbook of the principal types and instances of crimes committed during the last decades (including categories such as ‘Physical’ and ‘Mental’ torture), marked for location, year and culprit. However, the names of criminals, when given, have been withheld by ACSFo to avoid causing troubles to the interviewees.

As for the findings, the report offers several points of reflection on the past and present in the eyes of the Afghans. The first topic to be assessed, that of the effectiveness of the rule of law, shows Daud’s era with its 33 per cent nationwide well ahead of Karzai’s, stuck at 19 per cent (with the remarkable exception of Paktia’s inhabitants, who seem to consider Daud’s era as wild as the Far West).

A thoroughly unanimous national consensus seems achieved mostly in defining Karzai’s government as the most corrupt the Afghans experienced, surmounted only by the legendary depravation of the mujahedin’s administration in Nangrahar. The communist regime, on its part, ranks first in the nightmares of Afghans from almost every province for what concerns the targeting of intellectuals and political opponents.

Self-righteous Taleban or sympathizers who still believe in the Emirate version of the old fable of the lone-virgin-on-a-gold-laden-camel-crossing-unmolested-the-dominions-of-the-Khan (the Mongol one, in the original) are confronted with the numerous reports of sexual abuses and arbitrary killings carried out by them, including mass-scale rapes and executions during military campaigns in Hazarajat, the Shomali or Balkh. On the religious side, it is funny and quite fair that the Taleban should rank immediately after the communists as prime abusers of religious freedom. And, remarkably, the Taleban manage to get these bad marks countrywide: in the case of ‘violence against people’s beliefs’ they receive the highest condemnation not only where one would expect it, like Bamian (41%), Balkh (39%) or Herat (37%), but in Kandahar (36%) as well (**).

Interesting is what comes out of the query on the National Amnesty Charter, the self-amnesty that the numerous commanders inside the first Wolesi Jirga drafted in 2007 (and which was published in the official gazette next year, after wandering between the parliament and the presidential office for a while). If the controversial bill receives backing in some northern provinces like Fariab (56%) or Badakhshan (52%), it is strongly opposed by a majority of residents in Kabul (60%), Kandahar and Nangrahar (57%). The words of a Kabul woman best sum up the ridiculous side of the charter: ‘nowhere in the world do criminals forgive themselves.’

One of the report’s initial assumptions, that the Afghan people want justice to be done, is amply demonstrated by the answers given: in every province, and with a percentage of 84% countrywide, the respondents stood for the prosecution of human rights violators. But then, what ways are viable to accomplish this enterprise, and what future steps are advised to be taken in this respect?

Out of the four options suggested, that of the amnesty stands very low in the eyes of the interviewees (5%). Even a public apology with consequent reintegration in society of the guilty ones (11%) seems not to satisfy the victims, who would prefer at least disciplinary measures against those occupying public positions (63%), i.e. dismissing them (***).

In the eyes of my colleague Obaid Ali, however, a very important question was left unaddressed at this point. If some of the abuses extensively reported and documented are recognized as crimes against humanity, the Afghan state cannot extend an amnesty to the culprits. And in case the International Criminal Court (ICC) is to prosecute perpetrators (albeit only for crimes committed after July 2002, when the Rome Statute of the ICC became valid), what do Afghans think about that?


(*) Actually, the year 1958 refers more to a fifty years span (the research was carried out in 2008) than to a real turning point in Afghan politics. Appendix 2, a chronology of issues of concerns regarding human rights, considers also the premierships of the king’s uncles Hashim Khan and Mahmud Khan, covering thus the years from 1933 to 1956.

(**) As for striking results, among my personal favourites I would like to quote that according to as much as 12% of the Badakhshis interviewed, ‘democracy was never practiced’ in the last fifty years, which gives some credit to the old adage about mountain-dwellers: ‘big heads, fine brains’.

(***) Apparently with some inconsistency, the more vocal in calling for the fourth option, legal prosecution with jail sentences for abusers, were residents of Faryab and Badakhshan. In fact, as the report explains, these provinces were amongst the most severely hit by warlords’ crimes, and feature strongly polarized attitudes as to the issue of the amnesty/prosecution.


ACSFo Justice


Fabrizio Foschini

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