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Afghan Government Defends Chaotic Execution

The authorities are unrepentant in spite of claims that some of the 15 men executed were convicted as a result of flawed trials.
By Hafizullah Gardesh
Government officials are defending last month's execution of 15 prisoners, in spite of claims that convictions were unsafe and that the operation was a roadside slaughter.



The authorities have been severely criticised for the escape of Afghanistan's most notorious criminal Timor Shah, who was sentenced to death for kidnapping, rape and murder. It is not clear how Timor Shah managed to avoid the October 7 execution, which reportedly took place at 9:30pm by the side of a road on the outskirts of Kabul.



General Abdul Salam Esmat, head of Afghanistan’s prisons, was evasive about the circumstances of the escape.



“It is said that Timor Shah was taken to the execution hall but disappeared because of technical reasons,” he told IWPR. “Investigators are questioning those present on the scene.”



A senior prosecutor, Sarbeland, told The Times of London that he was charged with observing the execution, and described a chaotic scene. As some of the shackled prisoners tried to run when Timor Shah jumped over a wall and fled, it took between five and 10 minutes for a firing squad to mow them down and finish them off, he said.



Even before details emerged, the incident drew criticism from human rights groups and foreign diplomats. But Afghan officials remain unrepentant, despite the controversy and an ongoing investigation.



"[Afghanistan] has full authority to implement its civil and Islamic laws," said the president’s spokesman Humayun Hamidzada in an interview. "As long as Afghanistan’s laws allow for execution, the government will implement it and will not be pressured by anyone.”



A panel of judges and prosecutors appointed by President Hamid Karzai spent a year reviewing the prisoners' files, he added.



But Lal Gul, head of the Afghanistan Human Rights Organisation, said the process was flawed.



“We have looked at the files of some of those executed. Deficiencies can be seen in the investigations," he said, claiming that some of the convicts had no access to a lawyer, and were imprisoned as a result of ethnic and tribal discrimination.



He says his organisation supplied this information to the death penalty panel.



“The government needs to investigate those prosecutors and judges who ordered the executions, because innocent people have been killed and we can prove this," said Lal Gul, picking up a large file and threw it down on his desk.



“Haji Mohammad Hussain [who was one of those executed] was arrested because of a personal enmity," he claimed. "The regional district chief, the provincial governor, members of parliament from Farah province, regional people, district and provincial councils and the head of the Solidarity Programme, Sebghatullah Mujadeddi, all gave us documents that proved his innocence. But the prosecutors and judges gave him the death sentence."



While some analysts have suggested Karzai allowed the executions in part to bolster his popularity, Hamidzada denied such accusations.



"The executions took place to ensure justice is done, and not for political reasons," he said.



Still, the decision may have worked in Karzai's favour by convincing some that the government is getting tough on crime.



"If these criminals and thieves are not executed, conditions will become worse," said Kabul resident Gul Ahmad. "Every criminal should be executed, whether wearing police or military uniform or travelling in ministry vehicles with tinted windows. Everyone is equal under the law.”



Zakia, a university student in Kabul, also applauded the decision, but urged the president to extend the policy to alleged criminals within the government.



“Execution of criminals is fine, but can Karzai execute those who are his accomplices?" she asked. "When he is able to do so, I will call him a man.”



Kabul security chief Alishah Paktiawal said he was confident the executions would send a clear message to would-be criminals.



“I say this clearly - the crime rate will decrease dramatically after this execution," he said in a telephone interview.



Others, however, have condemned the use of the death penalty.



Fazel Rahman Oria, chief editor of Erada, said Afghanistan’s legal system is too corrupt to justify sentencing criminals to death.



“This is an unforgivable crime and murder," he said "This is Karzai’s biggest mistake and it will have bad consequences.”



He claimed that Karzai was punishing weak criminals while appointing powerful ones to government posts.



Political affairs analyst Daad Mohammad Noorani also accused Karzai of handing down arbitrary punishments.



“I don’t think the executions were just," he said. "Local people are killed by the Americans and French, and bombed by the Coalition forces. Isn’t that crime? Each human being costs 2,000 dollars [compensation] to them. Who has questioned and prosecuted them?”



He accused Karzai of refusing to go after more powerful criminals, who he claimed have links to Afghan and foreign governments.



“Those who were executed were mere leaves from a bigger tree," said Noorani. "Why cut the leaves, and not chop the tree down at its roots?”



The day after the executions, the Taliban issued a statement referring to the prisoners as “martyrs” and calling on “those working for human rights to ban this action by the government”.



Meanwhile, Timor Shah’s whereabouts are still unknown, and officials refuse to divulge details on the nature of the manhunt.



“We are trying to arrest Timor but cannot say anything more in this regard,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Zmarai Bashari over the phone.



Hamidzada promised that investigators will get to the bottom of what happened.



“After the completion of the investigation, the perpetrators will be punished,” he said, adding that some officials have already been fired.



Afghanistan’s Attorney-General is also looking into claims that some of those scheduled for execution had paid bribes for other prisoners to be forced to take their places.



Timor Shah was not the only one on the list to escape death that night. Another convicted murderer, Khayoum, managed to avoid being taken away from the Pol-e-Charki prison when fellow inmates refused to give him up. He apparently remains in an ungovernable section of the prison.



Farooq Meranay, a parliamentarian who recently visited the prison, said 110 inmates went on a ten-day hunger strike in support of Khayoum, and to force officials to listen to their demands.



“The first one is that political prisoners should not be executed; and the second is that files with long imprisonment terms should be reviewed; that the commander of the prison should be replaced; and that a Tolo TV reporter arrested by national security on charges of showing pictures of the prisoners should be freed,” said Meranay.



Authorities say there are currently 175 people on death row. A panel is reviewing their cases.



Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s editor in Kabul.