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Afghans Mull War Crimes Court

After a quarter-century of fighting that left more than a million dead, Afghanistan's government is considering setting up a special war crimes court and a truth-seeking commission to document atrocities, an official said Monday.

The news follows a comprehensive report on human rights abuses, the first since the late 1970s, which blames some of the worst atrocities on several top officials and candidates in coming legislative elections.

Those named include Chief of Army Staff Abdul Rashid Dostum and Second Vice President Karim Khalili.

Bringing them to justice would be risky for U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai. It could inflame ethnic tensions and alienate powerful regional strongmen whose support the government needs as it struggles to contain an escalating Taliban-led insurgency.

The government is expected to decide in coming weeks on a proposal to deal with crimes committed during years of warfare — from the 1978 communist coup through the Soviet occupation, the ensuing fighting between warlords, the rise of the repressive Taliban and its subsequent U.S.-led overthrow in 2001 — said Ahmad Nader Nadery, a commissioner with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

The plan, drawn up by the state-sponsored commission and U.N. human rights officials, calls for an immediate "vetting process" to remove officials from government if there is war crime evidence against them, Nadery said.

Afghanistan's justice system isn't thought to be strong enough now to prosecute those accused of atrocities, and the vetting is a stopgap until the courts can be reformed.

Over the next two years, government investigators would collect evidence against suspects, and prosecutors would then be appointed to prepare cases for court, Nadery said.

Trials, however, would be unlikely to start for another five years, when a special war crimes court would be set up with international and Afghan judges for those facing the most serious charges, he said.

"We can't try everybody, so we would also set up a mechanism so others accused of less-serious atrocities recognize their crimes," Nadery said. "And then they are forgiven."

He said the truth commission was needed to "promote national reconciliation and peace."

Nadery said details of the commission still had to be worked out, and that South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission had been reviewed, but was not being used as a model.

Attempts to get comment from Karzai's office were not immediately successful. The leader and his spokesman left Monday for a visit to Europe.

Nadery said some countries were campaigning for courts outside Afghanistan to pursue war criminals.

In London on Monday, a British jury convicted Faryadi Sarwar Zardad, 42, of torture and hostage-taking while he was a warlord in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Zardad moved to London in 1998 and was managing a pizza restaurant when he was arrested.

Prosecutors alleged that Zardad and his soldiers used checkpoints to steal money and goods from people passing by. Many of his victims gave evidence from the British Embassy in Kabul via video link.

The new 168-page report — which accuses dozens of officials of mass arrests, torture, executions and other war crimes — was prepared by an independent research organization, the Afghanistan Justice Project.

The report cites Karzai's former defense minister, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, and renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an ally of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The same leaders were named in a report this month by New York-based Human Rights Watch, which urged the government to set up a special court to try major war criminals.

Karzai himself welcomed a call in January by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission for some type of war crimes tribunal, though he said the recommendation needed further study.

While some observers caution that a public examination of past crimes could cause greater political instability, others argue that continued impunity for suspects — including warlords who helped the United States drive out the Taliban — is a stain on the international community's efforts to rebuild Afghanistan and is sowing the seeds of future turmoil.

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