Trial of Afghan man accused of war crimes opens in The Hague

A Dutch courtroom. Photo: Odi Busman
A Dutch courtroom. Photo: Odi Busman

The trial of a 76-year old man from Afghanistan accused of torturing prisoners while working at a Kabul jail in the 1980s started at The Hague district court on Wednesday.

The man, who came to the Netherlands as a refugee in 2001, was arrested in 2019 after the police were tipped off about his role as the head of the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison by blog posts.

The man, identified as Abdul R., had to be brought to the courtroom by wheelchair because his health is frail. The court spent most of Wednesday discussing the evidentiary file complied by investigators, detailing the horrific conditions at the prison, located east of Kabul. ‘No shower, no soap, no heating, no warm water,’ judges said.

The man claims he is not Abdul Razaq A. as prosecutors alleged and that it is a case of mistaken identity. ‘I don’t remember anything, not even my own name,’ he told judges and refused to further participate in the hearing.

The father of four was arrested in Kerkrade in 2019. Prosecutors say that documents collected at the time of his arrest show his real name and prove he forged documents given to authorities when he applied for asylum.

Universal jurisdiction

The US-backed mujahideen rebels spent most of the 1980s fighting a bloody guerilla war with the Afghanistan government, which was propped up by the Soviet Union. The conflict, widely seen as a proxy war between Washington and Moscow, killed an estimated one million Afghans and left millions more displaced.

Prosecutors will have to prove that this counts as an ‘internal armed conflict’ in order to be try the case in the Netherlands. Under a legal principle known as universal jurisdiction, Dutch authorities can prosecute some very serious crimes, even if they were committed elsewhere. The defense maintains this was an insurgent action and doesn’t rise to the level of a war crime.

The same court convicted a 49-year-old Syrian asylum seeker last year and sentenced him to 20 years in prison  for his involvement in the shooting of a Syrian government official in 2012. That event was captured on video.

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