Kabul executions spark fresh concern over fate of detainees

OTTAWA — Canada is seeking assurances from the Afghan government that none of the 15 prisoners executed Sunday had been transferred by Canadian forces, as human-rights advocates expressed outrage over the decision to end a three-year moratorium on the death penalty.

Fifteen men, convicted of crimes including murder, rape and kidnapping, were shot to death by firing squad in only the second execution since the collapse of the Taliban in 2001.

“The government of Afghanistan has been asked through diplomatic channels to confirm that none of the executed prisoners were transferees from the Canadian forces,” a spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Department said. The spokesman noted that under the detainee agreement between the two countries, Kabul has promised the death penalty will not be applied to any prisoners transferred from Canadian hands.

Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa law professor who helped unleash the controversy last winter over the possible abuse of detainees that contributed to the replacement of then-defence minister Gordon O’Connor, said the Afghan promise was “meaningless and unbelievable.”
A soldier of the Afghan National Army guards a street as the body of a prisoner is transported to his home for burial in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday.
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A soldier of the Afghan National Army guards a street as the body of a prisoner is transported to his home for burial in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

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“Canada has said repeatedly that they consider the agreement not legally binding,” he said, noting Canadian authorities appear to have lost track of an estimated 50 detainees after they fell into Afghan hands.

“If we’ve transferred people and lost 50 of them,” Prof. Attaran said, “how do you know that some of the guys executed are not some of those 50?”

A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Humayun Hamidzada, said Tuesday that the executions will continue as a lesson for those who commit a range of crimes, from murder to adultery. Last week, Mr. Hamidzada said that the President does not like executions but added that “Afghan law asks for it, and he will obey the laws.”

The UN mission in Afghanistan led the reaction, saying it had been a “staunch supporter” of the moratorium, which had been in effect, with a single exception, for the past six years. The government of the Netherlands, whose troops are fighting with Canadians in southern Afghanistan as part of the NATO coalition, called the executions “extremely unwelcome.”

The Canadian government’s reaction was much more nebulous. The Foreign Affairs Department said only that it “expects the government of Afghanistan to live up to its international human rights obligations.”

The government added that the agreement between Ottawa and Kabul signed in December of 2005 stipulates that “no Canadian transferred detainees may receive the death penalty.”

NDP MP Paul Dewar said the decision to resume executions raises questions about the Harper government’s justification for Canada’s presence in Afghanistan.

“What happens to the idea that the Afghan government is supposedly supporting human rights and the rule of law?” he said in an interview.

Liberal defence critic Denis Coderre, in Kandahar on a fact-finding mission, said he wondered whether the Afghan legal system was independent enough to allow such harsh treatment, recalling that the Taliban held public executions in soccer stadiums.

“I’m against capital punishment so I’m very, very concerned,” he said. “The Taliban were doing that. It’s the same thing.”

Mohammad Farid Hamidi of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said courts that order the death penalty should be legitimate and independent and should allow defendants an opportunity to defend themselves. But he said that Afghan courts do not fit those standards.

“This is a setback,” said Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International’s Canadian chapter, adding that it was disappointing because of the global momentum in favour of abolition of the death penalty.

Afghan officials insisted that no Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters were among those killed. Among those executed was Reza Khan, who was convicted of murdering three foreign journalists and their Afghan colleague on a roadside near Jalalabad six days after the collapse of the Taliban in 2001. Mr. Khan was also convicted of adultery. Also executed was an Afghan involved in the 2005 kidnapping of Italian aid worker Clementina Cantoni, who was freed after three weeks of captivity.

Tom Koenigs, the UN special representative in Afghanistan, said the UN had expressed concern over the death penalty several times in the past.

“The United Nations in Afghanistan has been a staunch supporter of the moratorium on executions in Afghanistan in recent years,” he said. “I expect Afghanistan to continue working toward attaining the highest human rights standards and ensuring the due process of law and the rights of all citizens are respected.”

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