Afghan torture victims who helped jail a in a landmark UK trial may be at risk after British authorities released him from jail and returned him to Afghanistan on Wednesday, without warning some witnesses or offering protection.
Faryadi Sarwar Zardad was known for keeping a “human dog” at a checkpoint on a key highway, who savaged victims on his command. He was convicted in 2005 of orchestrating a “cruel and merciless” campaign of torture and hostage-taking.
Human Rights Watch said 16 Afghans who testified against Zardad, mostly by videolink, were now potentially at risk. The group’s researcher Patricia Gossman said the decision to release him without preparing or protecting witnesses was irresponsible.
“There is no concern for the people who risked their lives to testify,” she said. “I’m pretty sure he’s out for revenge.”
If witnesses were attacked by Zardad or his supporters, it could damage future attempts to bring war crimes perpetrators to justice in Afghanistan and beyond, analysts and human rights activists said.
Zardad was met at Kabul airport on Wednesday by a group of supporters who had got through the first layers of normally strict security, at least one of them carrying a gun, a sign of the influence he still wields after nearly two decades out of the country. He was reportedly taken into custody on arrival, with authorities debating how to handle his case.
Zardad’s trial a decade ago was the first of its kind under the UN torture convention. He had fled to Britain as an asylum seeker in 1998 on a fake passport and was prosecuted in Britain even though he is not British and the offences he committed were carried out in Afghanistan.
It was considered so important that the then attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, initially led the prosecution himself. Zardad was eventually sentenced to two concurrent 20-year sentences. This week he was released on parole and deported.
Kate Clarke, of the, said: “The conviction of Zardad was a landmark case, helping to establish that the most severe crimes can be prosecuted anywhere. If witnesses cannot be assured that they will be protected from reprisal, however, it will become impossible to get this sort of justice.
“At least some were not informed by the UK government that he was coming back to Afghanistan, nor have any measures been put in place to protect them.”
The government admitted at the time of the trial that witnesses were scared of publicly speaking out against a man famed for his brutality.
“We had to find witnesses in remote parts of Afghanistan and give them the confidence to come forward to give evidence in a British court,” Peter Clarke, who headed Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist branch at the time, said after the conviction.
Gossman said officials convinced witnesses it would not be dangerous to testify, and said Zardad would not get early release.
“Two years ago, the UK embassy said that when he came up for parole there was no way they were going to release him,” she said.
The British embassy said normal procedure would be for UK police to contact witnesses before the release, but declined to say whether that had happened with those who testified against Zardar.
The Ministry of Justice, Parole Board and the Metropolitan police unit responsible for the investigation – which included sending officers to Afghanistan under armed guard to question witnesses – did not respond to requests for comment on the case.
Zardad fought the Soviets with the mujahideen before setting up his personal fiefdom on the highway between Kabul and the Pakistani border, using checkpoints to extract income from terrified travellers.
Samim was among them as a young man. He was dragged off a bus, hung upside down, chained and beaten for seven days until his family sold their house to pay the ransom for his release.
“I don’t believe in democracy because this man was released from prison,” said Samim, who did not testify at the trial. More than two decades on he still bears physical and mental scars, and is so scared to criticise the warlord publicly that he asked for his name to be changed in this report.