Afghanistan: Repeal Amnesty Law

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Afghanistan: Repeal Amnesty Law

Measure Brought into Force by Karzai Means Atrocities Will Go Unpunished

NEW YORK - The Afghan government should urgently act to repeal a law that
provides an amnesty to perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against
humanity, Human Rights Watch said today.

The law was published unannounced in the official gazette, bringing
it into force, despite repeated promises by President Hamid Karzai that
he would not allow the law to go into effect.

"Afghans have been losing hope in their government because so many
alleged war criminals and human rights abusers remain in positions of
power," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The
amnesty law was passed to protect these people from prosecution,
sending a message to Afghans that not only are these rights abusers
here to stay, but more might soon be welcomed in."

The National Stability and Reconciliation Law was passed by
parliament in 2007 by a coalition of powerful warlords and their
supporters to prevent the prosecution of individuals responsible for
large-scale human rights abuses in the preceding decades. The amnesty
law states that all those who were engaged in armed conflict before the
formation of the Interim Administration in Afghanistan in December 2001
shall "enjoy all their legal rights and shall not be prosecuted."

Human Rights Watch endorsed the March 10 statement of the
Transitional Justice Co-ordination Group, representing 24 Afghan civil
society organizations, which called for the law to be repealed. The
group stated that, "Accountability, not amnesia, for past and present
crimes is a prerequisite for genuine reconciliation and peace in
Afghanistan. All Afghans will suffer as a result of implementation of
this law, which undermines justice and the rule of law."

Three decades of war have brought serious human rights abuses
against all the major ethnic and political groups in Afghanistan,
including large-scale atrocities during armed conflict, extrajudicial
executions, enforced disappearances, and sexual crimes as a weapon of
war. Human Rights Watch documented one particularly grisly period in
1992-93 in "Blood Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan's Legacy of Impunity."

The amnesty law was passed at a time when Afghan public opinion was
beginning to mobilize against warlords and impunity. An opinion survey
published by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in
2005 indicated that large majorities favored prosecutions. The Afghan
government, the United Nations, the Commission, donor governments and
others were involved in discussions about addressing past abuses
through the government's "Transitional Justice Action Plan." In 2006
the government launched the Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation and
Justice in Afghanistan, which makes clear commitments to: 1)
acknowledge the suffering of the Afghan people; 2) ensure credible and
accountable state institutions and purge human rights violators and
criminals from the state institutions; 3) undertake truth-seeking and
documentation; and 4) promote reconciliation and improvement of
national unity.

After the amnesty law was passed by parliament in 2007, President
Karzai said he would not sign it. The chairperson of the AIHRC, Dr.
Sima Samar, told Human Rights Watch that she had been offered
assurances that he would not enact the law: "The president himself
promised me twice that he would not sign the law." Despite this
commitment, and similar promises to a range of civil society groups,
the law was published in the official gazette. It is not clear when
this happened, as the date on the gazetted law is December 2008, while
some sources say it was not published until January 2010, when printed
copies of the law were received by organizations that monitor the
gazette. 

"President Karzai has some explaining to do," Adams said. "Why is he
protecting people who have brought so much death and misery to Afghans?
Why are his relationships with warlords more important than his duty to
protect the rights of Afghans?"

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the law may be used to
provide immunity from prosecution for members of the Taliban and other
insurgent groups who have committed war crimes. The government and its
international backers have made a reconciliation process a main plank
of their counter-insurgency strategy. "It [the amnesty law] was
collecting dust for nearly three years," Fawzia Kufi, a member of
parliament, told Human Rights Watch. "But now that the president wants
to talk to the Taliban - for his own interests, and for his friends'
interests - he makes it law."

The law says that those engaged in current hostilities will be
granted immunity if they agree to reconciliation with the government,
effectively providing amnesty for future crimes.

"The amnesty law is an invitation for future human rights abuses,"
said Adams. "It allows insurgent commanders to get away with mass
murder. All they need to do is offer to join the government and
renounce violence and all past crimes will be forgiven - including
crimes against humanity."

Defenders of the amnesty law say that it still allows individuals to
bring criminal claims against perpetrators. However, international law
requires states to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity,
war crimes and other serious human rights violations, such as
extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances. Such
obligations cannot be transferred to individuals.

In practice, individuals have severely limited access to the justice
system in Afghanistan, as the state court system is barely functioning
in much of the country, corruption is rampant, and there is no witness
protection system.

When questioned about the conflict between the amnesty law and the
Action Plan, the presidential spokesman, Wahid Omar, said on February
10 that "transitional justice is not implemented by government" and
that civil society was responsible for implementing transitional
justice. His comments echo the private comments of some US officials,
who suggest that the amnesty law is not problematic because individuals
retain the right to bring cases.

"It is fantasy to think that an individual can take on a major war
criminal alone," said Adams. "Victims who challenge powerful people
will put themselves and their families at serious risk. It is dangerous
to even suggest this is a viable path to justice."

When the amnesty law was passed by the parliament in 2007, the
United Nations and many governments spoke out against it. Yet since it
was discovered that the law had been gazetted there has been little
comment or condemnation from the international community.

"The existence of this law is as much a test of the principles of
Afghanistan's international backers, such as the United States, as it
is of Karzai," said Adams. "Will they stand with abusive warlords and
insurgents, or will they stand with the Afghan people?"

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Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.

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