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Afghan Victims Pin Hopes On ICC Investigation

FILE: A protest demonstration to demand justice for the victims of war crimes in Afghanistan.

Farmer Najibullah Haidari, 38, is one of the countless victims of nearly four decades of war in Afghanistan.

Speaking with Gandhara RFE/RL from his hospital bed at Kabul’s Jamhuriat hospital, Haidari said he was shot in the abdomen by local strongmen three months ago.

“I was shot with a Kalashnikov assault rifle near my house at night,” he said of the incident in his village, Freshqan-e Kalan. “I was immediately rushed to the hospital, and parts of my intestine were removed. I am still being treated for my wounds.”

Like countless other crimes in Afghanistan, Haidari’s shooting in the Sancharak district in northern Afghanistan’s rural Sar-e-Pul Province is unlikely to be fully probed or its perpetrators punished. Several interviews with local officials established that even the initial probe into the attack has made little headway due to a local strongman’s involvement.

Impunity, weak institutions, and a lack of accountability have prompted more than 1 million Afghans to submit statements on alleged atrocities to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is still weighing whether to initiate a war crimes investigation.

While Haidari, father of seven, recovers in the hospital, millions of Afghans are seeking justice for the death, injuries, displacement, and humiliation they or their loved ones have sustained at the hands of various regimes, global and regional powers, warlords, and extremist factions such as the Taliban and Islamic State (IS).

FILE: The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague
FILE: The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague

NAI, a Kabul-based media freedom organization, is one of the numerous Afghan organizations that has contributed to submitting 1.17 million accounts of atrocities submitted to the ICC.

Mujeeb Khalwatgar, director of NAI, says his organization has submitted 190 complaints to the ICC. He says the cases involve alleged atrocities against journalists by the Taliban, IS, and the Haqqani network between 2003 and 2017.

“The cases are related to the killing, abduction, beating up, and harassment of journalists,” he told Gandhara RFE/RL.

In the eastern province of Kunar, tribal leader Shah Mahmoud Qazikheil says he lost two brothers and hundreds other residents of his village, Kerala, in 1979.

“I can recall that people were taken out of the prison at night, and we still do not know their fate,” he said. “We want the international court in the Netherlands to prosecute all those responsible for killing innocents in Kunar.”

The ICC, however, can only investigate crimes in Afghanistan after May 2003, when the country ratified the Rome Statute, which established the ICC. This permanent international court was established in 2002 and can prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and aggression.

In Afghanistan, tens of thousands of victims expect the ICC to probe grave rights abuses from a series of decades. The once-peaceful society was first torn apart by the crackdown accompanying the communist coup in 1978. During the decades that followed, the Red Army committed atrocities, and Afghans suffered some of the worst abuses at the hands of rapacious factional leaders, former jihadist factions, and new hard-line groups such as the Taliban in the 1990s.

ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda
ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda

In November, the ICC’s lead investigator, Fatou Bensouda, said the court is seeking the authority to investigate possible war crimes by Afghan forces, the U.S. military, the C.I.A., the Taliban, and affiliated armed groups.

During the next three months ending on January 31, the international court received 1.17 accounts of atrocities from victims.

“The ICC Pre-Trial Chamber will examine the Prosecutor’s request for authorization to open an investigation and consider the representations (testimonies) received from the affected communities,” the ICC’s public affairs wrote to Radio Free Afghanistan.

“In due course, the Chamber will issue its decision. At this stage we cannot speculate on the decision’s outcome and subsequent steps,” it added.

Patricia Gossman, a senior Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch, says an ICC investigation will send an important signal to Afghans.

“The court will make a determination quite soon about whether to proceed with a full investigation. I think this would really be a serious step forward for transitional justice in Afghanistan,” she said.

Gossman has probed right abuses in Afghanistan for decades. She says the adoption of an amnesty law in 2006 ended years of efforts by the Afghan government and international parties to begin a process of transitional justice. For more than 12 years, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission has been unable to publish its report on past abuses.

“I think many Afghans lost hope of seeing any kind of progress on transitional justice,” she noted.

Washington, however, opposes the ICC’s involvement in Afghanistan. "An ICC investigation with respect to U.S personnel would be wholly unwarranted and unjustified," the U.S. State Department said in A statement in November.

The statement added that the proposed investigation "will not serve the interests of either peace or justice in Afghanistan."

Kabul, however, has indicated a willingness to collaborate with the ICC.

“We are committed to cooperating with the International Criminal Court. The majority of crimes preserved in the Rome Statute have been reflected in the new penal code of Afghanistan in 2017," Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said in February. "A channel of communication and collaboration with the International Criminal Court has been established in the last two years, and the government is committed to keeping it open and on track.”

Ordinary Afghans are hoping the ICC will open an investigation. Ahmed Samim, a resident of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, wants the ICC to move forward.

“Complaints filed with the International Criminal Court should be addressed seriously. This would help reduce [current and future] crimes in Afghanistan," he noted.