Afghan TV Shows Video of Apparent Execution of Afghan Soldier

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- Mohammad Jan's killers did not even do him the decency of looking him in the eye.

In a distressing video aired on national television stations here on Thursday night, the Afghan National Army soldier first has his army identity card stuck in his mouth and is then ordered to say his name out loud, but can only mumble unintelligibly because of the card.

The scene cuts and one of the killers stands behind him and shoots him in the head with a pistol, five times. Another man stands off to the side, out of his victim's view, and fires three bursts from his AK-47 rifle into his torso, which convulses at each round.

It was yet another example of a terrible truth, one that has been a commonplace for so long that it is seldom commented upon: insurgents in Afghanistan rarely take any prisoners.

While the Afghan government and the American military are holding thousands of Taliban prisoners, there is no evidence that the Taliban are holding any, other than a lone American, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, whom they have been trying to exchange for high-level Taliban prisoners. Asked about this, a spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, insisted that the insurgents follow Islamic law in the treatment of prisoners and do not summarily execute them. He maintained that the insurgents had "many" prisoners, but declined to say how many, or where they were being held. The only case he could cite was that of Sergeant Bergdahl, who was captured in eastern Paktika Province on June 30, 2009.

"We do not kill prisoners, we try our best to keep them alive as long as we can," Mr. Mujahid said, in an interview by cellphone from an undisclosed location. He confirmed, however, that the Taliban do not allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit their prisoners; he said it would be unsafe for them to do so. The I.C.R.C. does routinely visit prisoners held by the Afghan government and by American forces.

"For instance, we have an American we have kept alive for years, Bergdahl," he added.

So what about Mohammad Jan and his apparent execution?

"We are going to investigate this case. Was it really an execution, or just a propaganda operation?" Mr. Mujahid said. "We will inform the news media."

Far more persuasive than the video, however, is the Afghan National Army's tally of its soldiers listed as missing: zero.

"They don't keep prisoners alive, so we don't have any missing soldiers, we don't think," said Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the spokesman for the Defense Ministry. He said the Afghan military has not yet determined whether the video of the execution was genuine, but in any case, "I call this a crime against humanity and a war crime."

Mr. Mujahid also maintained that in some cases the insurgents had released Afghan government prisoners on receiving assurances from elders or family members that the prisoner would not return to the fight. One example is Maulavi Shafiullah Nuristani, now a prominent member of the government's High Peace Council, who was captured by the Taliban when trying to visit a Taliban commander in Kunar Province to discuss a peace deal. "For a month, I was thinking of death every moment," Mr. Nuristani said. "They were cursing me, beating me and telling me that I have been helping invaders and the puppet government." He was finally released because of the intercession of powerful tribal relatives in the area.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission also condemned the video, and the Taliban's practice of summary executions. "This sort of execution without trial, it's against international humanitarian law, against human rights law, against all Islamic values to protect war prisoners," said Mohammad Farid Hamidi, a commissioner.

"Unfortunately, in many cases like this they capture people from the road and then they kill them," he said.

The Taliban have, however, been quick to protest on those relatively rare occasions when the government has executed Taliban prisoners. One of those took place last month, when six Taliban prisoners were hanged, along with another eight criminals.

The Taliban prisoners had been convicted of assassinations of public figures and participation in suicide bombing plots. While Human Rights Watch criticized the executions, it did so on the grounds that the death penalty is always wrong, and that Afghanistan's justice system is so poor that the convictions could not be trusted -- rather than because they were prisoners of war, according to the group's Afghanistan representative, Heather Barr.

When plans for the Taliban executions were announced, the Taliban released a statement the day before calling for them to be stopped. "Since executing war prisoners is an action contradicting every civil law, therefore the Islamic Emirate is gravely disturbed and regarding it urges the United Nations, Islamic Conference, International Red Cross and every other international human right organization to prevent this action," the statement said.

However imperfect their trials, the Taliban prisoners did at least get them.

Mr. Mujahid maintained that the insurgents would only kill prisoners after a proper trial under Shariah law, and then only if they had committed an actual crime other than simply belonging to the other side. But there is little evidence such trials actually take place.

When Taliban insurgents stopped a bus in the Ahmadkhel district of eastern Paktia Province last August, they found three Afghan National Army soldiers on leave onboard, and took them away. Their bodies were found the next day, shot to death.

Based on a hadith, or saying of the Prophet Muhammad, Islamic law is pretty much in concord with current international standards, said Mr. Hamidi, the commissioner. "You must respect the person, feed him from your own food, clothe him from your own clothing, and they have the same rights you have."

That will have been little solace to a soldier named Mohammad Jan.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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