Dutch Arrest Holds Hope for Justice in Afghanistan’s Dark Past

Karala, Afghanistan (HRW) – It’s the time of year when ghosts come calling. At least that’s how it must have seemed to Sadeq Alamyar when he was arrested  on October 27, 2015, in Rotterdam, on charges of ordering one of the most horrific crimes of the early years of Afghanistan’s long wars.

Image Source: seair21, Flickr, Creative Commons A girl stands in the doorway of her house in the old sector of Herat

Image Source: seair21, Flickr, Creative Commons
A girl stands in the doorway of her house in the old sector of Herat

If the case goes to trial, survivors and witnesses are expected to recount how on April 20, 1979, troops of the 444th Commando Force of the Afghan Army, which Alamyar commanded, shot more than 1,000 men and boys in Karala, in Kunar province. According to the Afghanistan Justice Project, as the remaining villagers watched, Alamyar’s forces then bulldozed the bodies into a trench. Many were only wounded and buried alive. The mass grave is still visible in Karala. The incident has been described in media accounts anddocumented by human rights organizations, but no one has ever been held accountable for the atrocity.

It’s rare when victims of 36-year-old crimes 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 over the years, and Alamyar’s prosecution would give hope to victims everywhere that they too might one day see justice.

The Netherlands has been one of the leading countries to proactively implement universal jurisdiction, an international law principle that allows the courts of one country to prosecute grave international crimes even if they were committed abroad, by foreigners and against foreigners. With its specialized war crimes unit, the Dutch have dedicated significant resources to ensuring the country does not become a safe haven for war criminals. For more than a decade, it has pursued cases against Afghan officials who settled in the Netherlands, as Alamyar did, in the 1990s. In 2005, the Dutch convicted two former officials of the Afghan intelligence agency, KhAD, of torture. Both have since been serving lengthy prison terms. In 2013, the publication by the Dutch prosecutor’s office of a list of almost 5,000 people forcibly disappeared in the late 1970s allowed the victims’ families to finally be able to hold mourning ceremonies for their murdered relatives.

Germany, Norway, and Denmark have initiated similar investigations, and the United Kingdom convicted one notorious Afghan warlord of torture and hostage-taking. However, suspected Afghan war criminals continue to find safe haven in the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere.

In Afghanistan, since the fall of the Taliban government in 2002, officials have utterly failed to pursue accountability for past crimes; Afghan warlords and others who have beenaccused of serious abuses continue to hold office or wield political power with impunity.

In announcing Alamyar’s arrest, the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office has called for witnesses to the massacre to come forward. Those who have done so have already sent a clear message from beyond Karala’s mass grave: Alamyar – and other war crimes suspects like him – will never be out of the reach of justice.

This report prepared by Patricia Gossman for Human Rights Watch.