Afghan 'prison chief' on trial for war crimes in Netherlands

Man says he is victim of mistaken identity and is too ill to even remember his own name

Exterior view of the headquarters of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. AP
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An elderly Afghan man went on trial in a Dutch court on Wednesday, accused of war crimes while in charge of a notorious Kabul jail for the communist regime in the 1980s.

The 76-year-old identified as Abdul R is accused of being the commander of Pul-e-Charkhi jail, where prisoners were allegedly held without trial, tortured and executed.

The suspect, who came to the Netherlands in 2001 and was arrested in 2019, says he is a victim of mistaken identity and is too ill to even remember his own name.

The trial in The Hague is the latest in a series of efforts in European countries to bring people to account for crimes in conflict-torn countries, including Syria and Afghanistan.

“This trial is about a man whom we believe committed a number of war crimes in Kabul,” prosecutor Mirjam Blom said.

“We suspect that he, as commander and chief of political affairs, was working in the prison where inmates were arbitrarily robbed of their personal freedom and treated them inhumanely.”

Prosecutors said he was head of the jail from 1983 to 1990, including during a period when Afghanistan's communist regime was fighting a Soviet-backed war against mujahideen fighters.

But appearing in court in a wheelchair, Abdul R, who now has Dutch citizenship, said he was innocent.

“I am not the person you are looking for,” he told the court, before refusing to answer questions, saying that he felt unwell and wanted to return to prison.

“I don't remember anything, not even my own name.”

Dutch authorities started investigating him in 2012 after blogs said that the former commander of Pul-e-Charkhi was possibly living in the Netherlands.

“Finally we picked up his trail. The public prosecution service has the point of view that he is here [in the Netherlands] under a false name,” said Ms Blom.

“We are convinced that we have the right person.”

Dutch authorities spoke to 25 witnesses in various countries and used “countless” open-source materials to gather evidence about the alleged war crimes at the jail.

“Inmates were being executed without trial. At night, prisoners were being shot,” said a witness statement, read before the court.

“Conditions in the prisons were very bad. There were often flies in the food. But complaining meant your tongue could be cut out,” another witness statement said.

Victim Abdul Wadood, 66, told the court that “I still have flashbacks” from his seven years in Pul-e-Charkhi.

“A broken hand, a broken arm, that can be fixed in time, but the psychological torture, that you carry with you for your whole life,” said Mr Wadood, who added that he had “lost many dear friends".

“I want to tell you that the man present here was the commander … and it's a shame that he has no remorse,” he added.

Notorious for its grim conditions, Pul-e-Charkhi has remained in use under various regimes until the Taliban freed prisoners from it last August.

The Dutch proceedings are made possible by the legal principle of “universal jurisdiction” — which allows countries to try people for crimes of exceptional gravity, including war crimes, even if they were committed in a different country.

It has so far mainly been used for cases involving the Syrian conflict, including the recent trial in Germany of a Syrian doctor accused of torturing detainees in his homeland.

The case is set to continue until early next week, with Abdul R's lawyers to speak on his behalf.

Updated: February 16, 2022, 11:15 PM