World News

Accused of Rape and Torture, Exiled Afghan Vice President Returns

KABUL, Afghanistan — After more than a year in exile, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum returned to his native Afghanistan on Sunday facing criminal charges of rape and kidnapping, as well as accusations of brutality, human rights abuses and killing his first wife.

Posted Updated
Accused of Rape and Torture, Exiled Afghan Vice President Returns
Rod Nordland
, New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — After more than a year in exile, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum returned to his native Afghanistan on Sunday facing criminal charges of rape and kidnapping, as well as accusations of brutality, human rights abuses and killing his first wife.

Dostum also remains the country’s first vice president.

Waiting to greet him Sunday at Kabul’s international airport was a government delegation and, apparently, a suicide bomber.

An array of top officials met his plane and, despite the criminal charges against him, they gave him safe passage — not to jail, but to his office and home, in a deal that Afghan officials have said was negotiated by President Ashraf Ghani in the wake of widespread protests and unrest among his fellow Uzbeks.

Moments after he left the airport, however, a suicide bomber detonated explosives at the traffic circle at the exit, killing 20 people, including nine members of a security detail assigned to Dostum, and wounding 90 others, according to police and health officials.

“Just as we passed the roundabout, we heard a boom. I said, ‘Oh God,'” Dostum told a crowd of thousands of supporters gathered outside his office in downtown Kabul to cheer his return. “I pray that all the wounded survive.”

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the suicide attack, according to SITE, the extremist monitoring group.

His supporters dismissed the many charges against Dostum. “He is a leader who has millions of supporters,” Mullah Mohammad Qasim said. “All of those allegations against him are baseless lies.”

The government insisted that the criminal charges remained active, even though they date from November 2016 and have resulted in no arrests. Dostum and nine of his bodyguards are accused of abducting a political opponent, Ahmad Ishchi, and of beating and raping him repeatedly.

Dostum’s return from exile is the latest episode in the tumultuous career of the Uzbek leader, an illiterate former communist enforcer turned warlord who at one time or another was allied with every side in Afghanistan’s long war — including the Taliban — and turned on most of them.

He is accused of war crimes, including allowing his men to suffocate thousands of Taliban prisoners in locked truck containers.

Long a protégé of the Central Intelligence Agency, which mentored and armed him, Dostum has proved a powerful political player in Afghan elections in recent years, able to deliver his small but united Uzbek minority as a 4-million-strong bloc, giving him outsize influence. Ghani took him on as his running mate in 2014, despite previously calling him a “known killer.”

The new political respectability of First Vice President Dostum — the country has three vice presidents — did little to curb his behavior, however. After the election, he would still at times be seen leading his private militia into battle, riding in his personal Humvee with two dwarf bodyguards on the hood, and engaging in drinking bouts in a country where alcohol is outlawed. And he is widely accused of continuing to use rape to subjugate his enemies, and occasionally his allies.

His exile to Turkey was negotiated with the help of diplomats to avoid the unrest that would most likely have erupted if he were to face trial on rape charges. But unrest in northern Afghanistan, where Dostum has many supporters and allies, is happening anyway: Many Uzbeks have been angered by the government’s arrest of a powerful northern warlord and Dostum ally, Nizamuddin Qaisari, and his bodyguards. Video of government forces violently abusing his bodyguards became public, fueling protests and more outrage.

Government officials insist that Qaisari will remain in custody, but Dostum’s return is expected to calm his supporters.

The deal allowing him to return is seen as a bid by Ghani’s government to seek his cooperation in parliamentary elections this year, as well as in next year’s presidential race. Many other northern political factions are aligning against Ghani’s largely Pashtun ethnic base, and Dostum could broaden that support to Uzbeks.

Several people have come forward to give accounts of Dostum’s violence and sexual abuse, and diplomats and U.S. Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks have detailed even more.

A former personal chauffeur to Dostum, Saleh Mohammad Faizi, was interviewed by The New York Times in refugee housing in Austria, where authorities have granted him asylum because he was under threat from the general, whom he served for 23 years. He gave explicit permission to be identified and photographed as he came forward with his accusations.

He said he fell out with Dostum when he refused to marry the general’s girlfriend, whom he described as a 15-year-old girl, in order to provide a discreet means for Dostum to see her. Dostum already had two wives, who would not consent to his taking a third one, Faizi said.

Infuriated at Faizi’s refusal, Dostum, with the help of his bodyguards, repeatedly raped and tortured Faizi over a period of several days, he said, eventually chaining him by his lip — the scar is still evident — to the inside wall of a truck container. Faizi said he was able to escape after a CIA team won his release in 2013; he later fled the country.

Faizi also accused Dostum of killing his first wife, Khadija, and of numerous rapes of political opponents as well as underage boys and girls. “I know whom he killed, and when and where he put the bodies,” he said.

While several diplomats and government officials have confirmed Faizi’s account of how he was treated by Dostum, there is no independent corroboration of his charges of numerous other rapes and murders. The episode involving Ishchi took place much more recently, in November 2016, and Ishchi has publicly avowed that he was raped by Dostum’s bodyguards on the general’s orders. In the interview, Ishchi claimed that Dostum tried to rape him but was unable to physically perform the act, so instead had photographs taken to simulate the rape in order to humiliate Ishchi.

Akbar Bai, head of the Turkic Council of Afghanistan, a group that represents Uzbeks and others who speak Turkish languages, is widely reported to have been attacked by Dostum. Reached by telephone in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, where he has business interests, he confirmed an assault that was reported by a U.S. Embassy cable publicized by WikiLeaks, which the cable described as “the latest of Dostum’s drunken fits sparked by challenge to his feudal authority.”

“This thug caused the murder of hundreds and thousands of people since the time of the Communists, and raped many people, men, women, even young girls and boys,” Bai said. “Today he is the second man in the country. This person is the biggest butcher and criminal in the world, he should not be free — he should be put in The Hague.”

Dostum’s first wife, Khadija, was killed more than 20 years ago. Faizi, the former chauffeur, said he was on duty one night when the wife caught Dostum having sex with an underage girl. After an angry argument between the couple, Faizi said, Dostum drove off, leaving instructions with one of his bodyguards to “take care of her.”

“Later he called him on the walkie-talkie and said, ‘It’s done, the mission was carried out as instructed,'” Faizi said. When they returned to the family home, Khadija was found shot to death with an AK-47, purportedly by her own hand, and accidentally. She was the mother of the four oldest of Dostum’s nine children.

Faizi claimed that Dostum’s personal secretary, Jalil Sarbaz, had called him in Austria and threatened his family if he talked to the news media about the Uzbek leader.

Sarbaz denied that, however. “We don’t have any contact with him,” he said. “His claims are not true.” Brian Glyn Williams, a University of Massachusetts professor who wrote a generally admiring biography of Dostum, “The Last Warlord,” raised the question of how Khadija had died during an interview with his subject. “It was almost dangerous. He got angry and stormed away from the table, and didn’t come back for a week,” Williams said.

Dostum denied being behind her death, and eventually related his version of events, the author said: The general told him that Khadija had been cleaning their house, which had several AK-47s hidden in it. She accidentally tripped one that was behind a refrigerator, with a broom, the general told Williams.

Williams wrote of the general’s account: “As the gun caught on her broom and fell sideways toward her, a coil behind the refrigerator set off the trigger on the deadly automatic weapon, he said, and it went off. The gun fell from behind the refrigerator with a bang, shooting off several shots that caused Khadija and her servants to scream in panic. As Khadija jumped away, she was shot in the chest.” Twice.

Dostum’s spokesmen have dismissed all of the accusations against him as concoctions by his political opponents.

Bashir Ahmad Tahyanj, the spokesman, called Ishchi’s rape charge absurd, and said it was “a thoroughly false and made up claim.”

“In this old age, the general — a respected person, the first vice president — and Ishchi, also a 60-something year old, what wisdom and logic accepts that he would rape him?” Tahyanj said.

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.