YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The World

Afghan death penalty raises concerns

Some donor nations are troubled by the revival of executions, especially in a land whose justice system is seen as inept.

December 20, 2007|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — On a cool October evening, at the foot of one of the mountains that ring this city, the crack of heavy gunfire ripped through the twilight. When the reverberations finally faded and all was still, 15 people lay dead in a jumble of bloody bodies.

Thus did the Afghan government, after keeping its firing squad idle for 3 1/2 years, revive capital punishment in this war-ravaged land. Officials say more executions are to come.

The resumption of the death penalty here has sparked concern among many of the nations that provide Afghanistan with military and financial aid. Beyond moral qualms, critics and human rights activists are worried about the ultimate punishment being meted out by a justice system widely regarded as corrupt and incompetent.

Some of those reservations led President Hamid Karzai to declare a moratorium on executions in 2004, after his government carried out the first death sentence in the country since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. In that case, a man was put to death even though his trial had been criticized by the United Nations.

Today, Karzai faces daunting new political realities. His approval ratings have tumbled amid a sharp upswing in insurgent attacks and violent crimes such as kidnapping and robbery. Insecurity has climbed to the top of the list of problems that Afghans say have beset their country.

Implementing the death penalty was an instantly popular move, allowing Karzai to look tough on public safety and shore up support for his government. Observers note that the mass execution Oct. 7 came barely a week after one of the worst suicide attacks in the capital, Kabul, with 30 people killed aboard an army bus.

Karzai's spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, acknowledged that public opinion played an important role in the decision to end the moratorium.

"Implementing the law is the duty of the government," Hamidzada said. "And secondly, public pressure -- the people wanted this.

"President Karzai himself is against executions. He doesn't like executions. That's why he took so long to make sure every case was investigated thoroughly."

Karzai's personal opposition to the death penalty places him in a minority among his countrymen. During the Taliban's harsh rule, public executions were carried out in stadiums before thousands of spectators, and the overwhelming majority of Afghans still favor the death penalty, and not just for murderers.

"If the government executes thieves and kidnappers, that's a good thing," said Faizuddin, a 27-year-old Kabul resident who, like many Afghans, goes by only one name. "It serves as an example to others."

At the same time, however, the justice system, while improving, remains a shaky institution. Due process and judicial impartiality are often phantoms in a country with a history of tribal and vigilante justice and of warlords who bend police, courts and local officials to their will.

"Still we're receiving lots of complaints about the judicial system -- about the incompetence of judges, about bribery and corruption in various levels of courts," said Ahmad Fahim Hakim, deputy chairman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "It would be difficult to think that there are opportunities for everyone to go through a fair and free trial."

Besides trial and sentencing, the executions themselves can be botched.

Sixteen prisoners were on the list for the Oct. 7 execution, a mix of criminals and Taliban militants whom Karzai determined to have committed the most heinous deeds and to have had a fair trial. But moments before the execution, a murderer named Timor Shah, possibly the most infamous of the lot, managed to escape.

How he did so is still unclear. But three guards reportedly were arrested on suspicion of helping him.

According to a source with knowledge of what happened that evening, Shah somehow was able to jump over a low wall and run off, shouting, "God is great!" while everyone else was lined up to be shot. The source asked not to be identified for fear of official reprisal.

Shah's escape was just one of several things to go wrong, said the source, whose account follows. (The account has since been corroborated in many respects by an interview given to the Times of London by a senior prosecutor who was present at the execution.)

First, it took several hours for police in charge of the execution to find somewhere to carry it out; the Ministry of Defense refused to allow use of a site by an army camp.

With daylight quickly draining from the sky, the police brought the condemned men to the base of a mountain on Kabul's outskirts and lined them up. Procedure dictates that each prisoner be allowed to make a final ablution and prayer, and that the prisoners be shot one at a time, with a bullet to the chest.

But none of that happened. After Shah broke from the crowd and fled, others tried to escape as well. Panicked, the firing squad unleashed a hail of bullets. Some of the dead were disfigured and unidentifiable.

Los Angeles Times Articles