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A Milestone for Afghan Justice -- or Lack of It

Abdullah Shah could become the first person executed in the post- Taliban country. But there was no real investigation of his case.

November 24, 2002|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan -- In his last days of freedom, Abdullah Shah -- a brutal moujahedeen with many enemies -- was living like a fugitive in two squalid rooms in the poorest part of Kabul with Gul Makai, the woman unfortunate enough to be his fifth wife.

Ten days after their wedding, the 20-year-old bride fled the house into a narrow, stinking lane, screaming that her husband had killed other wives and was trying to kill her.

Abdullah Shah, 37, was arrested. He was later tried and convicted, not for the alleged slayings of wives but for the murders of 13 civilians in the early 1990s, during the country's vicious civil war. Sentenced to death Oct. 15, he could become the first person executed by the state in post-Taliban Afghanistan. His case is under appeal, but the former moujahedeen commander seems to have run out of friends powerful enough to save him from hanging.

Amrudin Qate, chief prosecutor of Afghanistan's secondary national security court, claims that Abdullah Shah is a psychopathic fiend who killed dozens or even hundreds of people, including three wives and three children, one a baby whom he tore limb from limb.

Villagers about 10 miles north of here in the Qargha area, where Abdullah Shah had his military base, allege that he killed hundreds of civilians in the early 1990s after the moujahedeen defeated the nation's communist regime and took power, unleashing civil war and a reign of terror in the Kabul region.

"He's the worst criminal we have. No one even knows how many people he killed," said Qate, adding that 30 people signed complaints against Abdullah Shah.

The case is the first against an Afghan moujahedeen commander for war crimes. However, authorities have shown a marked reluctance to investigate the full scope of Abdullah Shah's actions and find out whether the allegations of widespread killings are true.

Judge Was Sacked

Abdullah Shah's trial was a shoddy process that highlighted the failures of Afghanistan's court system. One judge was sacked for bribery after the first court imposed a 20-year sentence. A second trial hastily sentenced Abdullah Shah to death. As is common here, the defendant had no lawyer.

International human rights monitors have criticized the proceedings, and a U.N. representative called for a halt to the death penalty in Afghanistan until international standards for imposing capital punishment could be met.

The many war crimes committed during the long and brutal civil conflict still haunt this country, but the lack of a thorough investigation into the many allegations against Abdullah Shah suggests that Afghanistan is not yet ready for an effective war crimes tribunal or a truth and reconciliation commission.

The worst accusation against Abdullah Shah is that he was responsible for an alleged massacre of 40 to 50 ethnic Hazara civilians in 1994. Abdul Razaq, 37, an unemployed clerk from Qalai Kashef village, where the commander was based, claims that in one instance, he saw Abdullah Shah line up 15 or 16 Hazaras and order a soldier to fire a rocket-propelled grenade to see how many of them would fall.

But the accusation of a massacre was neither included in his trial nor fully investigated. Asked why, Qate replied that in a country like Afghanistan, witnesses lacked the courage to testify.

"We didn't need any more evidence," he said. "We have 13 people who said he killed their relatives. We have enough stuff."

In an interview before his trial, Abdullah Shah, shackled in leg irons, denied all allegations against him, insisting that they were trumped up by enemies in a feud over water and land.

There is a simple key to unlock the main accusation against Abdullah Shah: It would take spades and some diggers to uncover the truth. In dusty Deh Araban village, near his base, lies a well 5 yards wide and 25 yards deep, filled in with dirt. Villagers claim that Abdullah Shah buried dozens of bodies there, including those of the Hazaras. Villagers petitioned authorities last month to dig up the well, fearful that they would face retribution if they did so themselves.

But criminal investigators have no plans for exhumation, saying it would cost too much.

According to villagers, Abdullah Shah massacred civilians largely because of their ethnicity or the fact that they worked for the communist regime. If that is true, he was like many other commanders in the early 1990s.

They also say he kidnapped people to extort money and was violent toward his wives. That contributes to the depiction of him now as a monster far more brutal than other commanders, many of whom still hold powerful positions.

Gul Makai wrapped herself in a long blue shawl with white flowers as she told the story of her marriage to Abdullah Shah, a man who still terrifies her.

She said Abdullah Shah took her by force, threatening her family if they did not turn her over.

"I knew he was a killer," she said. "I didn't want to lose any of my brothers, so I agreed to marry him."

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