A senior Taleban commander quietly pardoned by President Hamed Karzai last year, Akbar Agha, has given his first interview since being released from Pul-e Charkhi jail. He told AAN’s Senior Analyst, Kate Clark, that he was one of “hundreds of Taleban prisoners” across the country who were released by the president to mark Eid al-Fitr in September 2009. Akbar Agha was sentenced in 2004 to 16 years in jail (which was subsequently reduced on appeal) for ordering the kidnap of three UN staff. He was then the leader of a Taleban splinter group, Jaish ul-Muslimin. He maintains his innocence.
Dressed in the immaculate white shalwar kamiz and turban marking his status as a sayyed, Akbar Agha greeted his AAN visitors in the guestroom of his new home in west Kabul. Like several other senior Taleban, who have been released but remain under the close observation of the government, he is living in Khushhal Mena and is under a form of house arrest where he needs permission to travel. “I’m still a half prisoner,” he joked. Like the other released senior Taleban, he did not attend the recent consultative peace jirga – and declined to speak about it. However, he did speak at length about his own case and about Taleban prisoners in general.
The interview comes at an interesting time: the first action of President Karzai, post-peace jirga, was to set up a senior-level committee to review ‘security detainees’ and identify those wrongfully arrested. The first releases through this process have just taken place – 21 people altogether. Most them were in the hands of coalition forces: ‘innocent people’ according to the judgement of the commission appointed by the President to look into their cases – inclusing two “would-be suicide bombers,” according to a deputy attorney general. (See those earlier blogs here and here.)
Akbar Agha, however, was freed by presidential pardon – and, he said, he was just one of many Taleban pardoned at the eid: “There were hundreds released – not just in Kabul, but across the country – Jalalabad, Kandahar, Zabul….in Kabul, they included [some of] those still under investigation, as well as those who’d been convicted.” It is difficult to confirm these numbers because, as is normal, the names of those pardoned were not made public. Both the president’s office and the Office of the Administrative Affairs said they could not confirm the existence of such a pardon, but were looking into the matter. We will keep you updated when we hear back from them.
When Akbar Agha was asked why he thought the president had set up a prisoner review committee to look into security prisoners, given his already considerable powers of release, he said cryptically, “Hamed Karzai is very careful in building a new Afghanistan, but there are other hands which don’t allow him to do it… maybe the committee is a political thing.”
There has been speculation as to why Akbar Agha, a convicted kidnapper, was released early. Continual petitions and pressure on the president from pious Kandaharis who respect Akbar as a descendent of the Prophet was one friend’s version of events; released because he is a Kandahari Taleb and therefore a possible mediator in talks with the Taleban is another. However, although he was released in the autumn of 2009 – which coincided with discussions about talking to the Taleban, the decision to release him seems to have been taken much earlier – in the summer of 2009, just before the presidential elections (see those news items for details). Whether or not a man who set up a splinter group and publicly stood against the Taleban’s ‘amir ul-mu’menin,’ Mullah Omar, would be a suitable conduit for talks is another issue. Akbar’s own account is that he had simply served more than half of his (reduced) sentence and therefore became eligible for release under presidential order. When I asked about the pardon in April, the president said he could not recall the matter.
Akbar said he had not visited the presidential palace since his release; nor had the government sought his advice about anything. He did mention one extremely high profile Afghan visitor to his home, however and said such visits were normal.
Akbar Agha’s path to freedom from Pul-e Charkhi is interesting. He was sentenced to sixteen years for kidnapping three UN staff in 2004 – the actual kidnap was carried out by a criminal gang and Akbar made ransom demands from Pakistan as the leader of Jaish ul-Muslimin, which he had set up. It looked like a case of a Taleb trying to turn the ‘jihad’ into business – launching a new group with a spectacular event which he hoped would not only yield an immediate return (the ransom), but also attract money out of potential funders and supporters. The media quoted Akbar issuing death threats and discussing deadlines and the case against him appears to be water-tight; the journalists who reported on the case included veteran Taleban watchers who knew him (see newspaper articles on this at the bottom of the blog).
However, Akbar maintains he is innocent and was arrested after a case of mistaken identity. He said he had been in contact with the Afghan authorities from Pakistan, but only to try to mediate and secure the release of the hostages. The man issuing death threats via the media, he said, was another Akbar Agha (a man from Shahwalikot, who, he said, is now dead).
The hostages – a British woman and two (Filipino and Kosovar) men – were eventually rescued after four weeks of harrowing incarceration and death threats. The gang in Kabul was arrested and Akbar was picked up in Pakistan and handed over to the Afghan courts (“I will never go to that country again,” he said.) His jail sentence was repeatedly reduced by the appeals and supreme court and ended up at eight years: Akbar recounted how he had appealed to the appeals court judge on the grounds of being Muslim, Sayyed, Hafez-e Qu’ran, mujahed and the fifteenth generation from a famous, religious scholarly family – and how he quoted the Sura of Yusif (Joseph), who was famously falsely accused of rape and successfully defends his innocence. He said the judge had wanted to release him, but hinted that his hands were tied: he could only reduce Akbar’s sentence.
Akbar also says he was initially offered a pardon much earlier – in 2007 – just before that appeals court hearing at a time when he was just two years into a sixteen year sentence. He says he was taken out of Pul-e Charki and met senior members of the government – whom he named to us – and was offered to live under house arrest. He said he refused: “Why were they offering to release me, if they believed I was a criminal?”
The timing of Akbar’s story matches a (rather different) account given by several UN staff who spoke to us about the case. They said the Palace had consulted UNAMA about pardoning Akbar, but had met stiff resistance. UNAMA believed a pardon would only encourage fresh kidnaps. The idea was dropped. Last year, just before the presidential elections, UNAMA was again informed of a planned pardon. Asked about why he did not protest, the then head of UNAMA, Kai Eide, said he had been irate to be informed unofficially, through “unacceptable channels” (ie the head of the Supreme Court telephoned a UNAMA staff member); moreover, he said his daily visits to the palace had been taken up with the elections. A few months later, Akbar was quietly freed.
This account suggests Akbar’s pardon may have been related to the presidential elections, rather than to talks with the Taleban. It is also clear that the president – or his closest aides – had originally wanted to release Akbar just two years into his sentence.
We left Akbar Agha with a couple of questions on the NDS – its former head, Amrullah Saleh has criticised government policy to release Taleban and Akbar Agha had, in turn, accused the agency of arresting many men solely in order to extract bribes for their release. What did he think of Amrullah Saleh’s resignation as NDS boss, I asked. “I’m very glad,” he said – and who would he like to replace him? “I don’t like any of them… but we don’t want to build Afghanistan from just one group – Gulbuddin and the Taleban should be part of the government to make the country whole.”
‘Troops hunt Afghan kidnap victims’, BBC 29 October 2004;
‘Deadline extended for foreigners held in Afghanistan’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November 2004:
Scott Baldauf and Owais Tohid, ‘Aidworkers Increasingly a Target in Conflict Zones’, Christian Science Monitor, 5 November 2004.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020