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Afghanistan's Former Prosecutors Hunted By Criminals They Helped Convict


Taliban fighters chat with former prisoners after their release at the Pul-e Charkhi Prison in Kabul on September 13.

KABUL -- Afghanistan's former prosecutors once worked to rid their country of its most dangerous criminals by building court cases to put them behind bars.

Now, former prosecutors are hiding themselves from those same criminals -- the murderers and drug dealers who were freed by the Taliban when the militant group took over the country and released almost all convicted criminals from Afghanistan's prisons.

For years before last month's collapse of the Afghan central government, Humayun was tasked with investigating serious crimes in the southern province of Helmand. Working in a region where most of the world’s opium is grown and processed into heroin, his job often focused on those in Afghanistan's illegal narcotics trade.

But now, Humayun says he is receiving threats from the criminals he helped to convict. He says they are demanding that he reimburse them for fines they'd paid and property that was confiscated from them as part of their sentencing.

Humayun, who like many Afghans goes by one name, cites the example of a former convict who called him recently from Helmand’s Nad-e Ali district.

“He told me I’m responsible for the confiscation of his car and that I should return it now,” Humayun told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.

Humayun says he is not alone in facing such demands.

“Many former inmates are now threatening me and my colleagues to demand that we return their money,” he said. “A responsible court [working under a legitimate government and constitution] imposed penalties or ordered their properties confiscated. Yet they are insisting that we are personally responsible for what happened to them.”

Jails Emptied Out

Former prosecutors from across Afghanistan tell similar stories about the threats they are receiving.

Many of those freed by the Taliban last month from Afghanistan's prisons were Taliban fighters or members of other militant groups like the Islamic state or Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan.

But the jails emptied out by the Taliban also included prisoners convicted for crimes that would have received severe punishments, even the death penalty, under the Taliban's own interpretation of Islamic law.

Afghan lawyers tell RFE/RL that those former inmates already have targeted at least three former prosecutors in revenge killings.

Hayatullah Khan, a pseudonym for a former government attorney who requested anonymity because of security fears, says he knew those targeted.

“They included Ahmadi Shah, who was assassinated in Nangarhar Province on August 26," he said. "The next day, another prosecutor was killed in [the western province of] Farah. On September 12, another former prosecutor Nusrat Ullah was killed. Every [former] prosecutor here now faces grave dangers.”

Although the Taliban has declared that its forces will not torment those who worked for the ousted Afghan government, reports of retribution and reprisal killings are common across Afghanistan.

The Taliban has said nothing about former government workers who are being targeted in revenge killings. The militant group also has said little about the structure of the future court system under their rule, or whether they will allow former Afghan justice officials to return to work.

'No Need For Prosecution'

Haroun Rahimi, a self-exiled assistant law professor from the Kabul-based American University of Afghanistan, says he does not expect the Taliban to continue to employ any former prosecutors.

“The prosecution is basically an element of due process,” Rahimi told RFE/RL. “You need a government person to actually make a case that a person who is being accused of a crime is guilty.”

“But when I talked to prosecutors in Herat who have met with the Taliban's top judge in the province, they said the Taliban feel they have no need for prosecution,” he said.

“They said the Taliban has not appointed anybody as a caretaker for the prosecution in Herat," Rahimi noted. "They said the Taliban basically implied that they have no need for prosecutors -- that the forces who will actually be arresting people and punishing people would just do the job of the prosecution themselves.”

“The element of the rule of law in legal terms -- not the police investigators, but the due process of law -- felt very strange to the Taliban,” Rahimi said.

"This suggests that the Taliban is going to continue to run the judiciary the way it has done so far as an insurgency with its shadow courts," Rahimi said. "Often there is just one judge for a whole province, and that judge is the sole decision maker.”

Videos of the Taliban publicly punishing alleged criminals suggest the hard-line movement may formalize its shadow courts that had dispensed quick rulings under Taliban commanders or clerics.

“There’s no indication that the Taliban are thinking about incorporating the institutional setup of the previous government’s judicial and legal system,” Rahimi said. “They view that system with distain. They’d like to continue what they perceive as a more Islamic -- authentically Islamic -- simple version of the adjudication that they were doing with their shadow courts.”

Female prosecutors see no prospect for returning to their work. Some say they receive threats every day and worry about their safety.

Jamila, a pseudonym for a woman who'd worked as a prosecutor in Kabul, says she and her colleagues are desperate to leave the country.

She says their work for the ousted government means they are in danger along with their families.

“We want the media to convey our message to the world,” she told Radio Azadi. “The international community should help relocate us to a safe place, so we don’t suffer a complete nervous breakdown.”

Britain has already evacuated some prosecutors and judges of a Kabul-based special crimes tribunal to Manchester and other cities. That court dealt with serious criminal cases in Afghanistan.

With reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents on the ground in Afghanistan whose names are being withheld for their protection.

  • 16x9 Image

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan, is based in Kabul and supported by a nationwide network of local Dari- and Pashto-speaking journalists. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. 

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    Ron Synovitz

    Ron Synovitz is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL.

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