Afghanistan’s vice-president has left the country after a six-month standoff following allegations that he illegally detained a political rival and had him raped with an assault rifle.
Abdul Rashid Dostum flew to Turkey on Friday evening reportedly for medical treatment, according to sources in the Afghan government. Dostum is believed to have alcohol problems and claims to suffer from diabetes.
His departure for Turkey makes it unlikely that he will face trial, calling into question more than a decade of western efforts to instil the rule of law in Afghanistan and help build public trust in the government.
The allegations against the vice-president triggered a political crisis that has engulfed Afghanistan since last November when Dostum abducted Ahmad Ishchi, a politician from Dostum’s home province of Jowzjan, from a stadium in the northern part of the country. Ishchi was held for five days, during which time he says he was severely beaten and raped with the barrel of a rifle by nine of Dostum’s bodyguards.
Dostum has evaded punishment by taking refuge in his mansion in central Kabul, guarded by armed militiamen. Nobody has been arrested or indicted, despite medical evidence backing up Ishchi’s claims.
Human rights defenders have called for Dostum and his guards to be prosecuted, but the Afghan government reportedly put him under pressure to leave the country instead. It was unclear who chartered the plane that took him on Friday.
After Ishchi’s allegations in November, the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, framed the case as his make-or-break moment to show that not even powerful warlords were above the law. Ghani told western diplomats he was fed up with Afghan strongmen breaking the law with impunity. “Rule of law and accountability begins in the government itself and we are committed to it,” his spokesman said publicly.
Donors promised Ghani their support if he took Dostum on. The EU called for an investigation into “reports of gross human rights violations”. In private, diplomats said the credibility of the Afghan government hinged on bringing Dostum to justice.
Now, some admit, their own credibility is at stake as well. “President Ghani climbed up the highest tree, and we climbed with him,” one European ambassador said.
Dislodging the Taliban from power was meant to create a safer country for Afghans. Instead, the country now sees strongmen, including top government officials, perpetrate violence and corruption with impunity.
Ishchi, a former governor of the northern Jowzjan province, was kidnapped in November while he was attending a traditional game of buzkashi, a type of polo where horse riders fight over a headless goat carcass.
He said that on his first day in captivity, Dostum and nine security guards beat him before stripping off his trousers. Dostum then attempted to rape him before commanding the bodyguards to sodomise him with a rifle, while a cameraman filmed the abuse.
“Make sure he doesn’t have any honour left,” Ishchi recalled Dostum saying, in a recent interview with the Guardian. He was held for a total of five days.
Bashir Ahmad Tayanj, a spokesman for Dostum, denied all allegations, saying the men had in fact arrested Ishchi for collaborating with the Taliban. However, forensic evidence from medical treatment showed injuries corresponding to Ishchi’s allegations.
Dostum remained free, in loose house arrest at his mansion. He refused to appear for questioning, and police ignored an arrest order from the attorney general, probably out of fear of unrest from militiamen loyal to Dostum who commands large parts of the country’s 2 million ethnic Uzbeks.
The attorney general’s office said it was investigating the case seriously but declined to say whether Dostum was personally under investigation.
To some, the standoff was proof of the reality of Afghan politics: since 2001, some Afghan powerbrokers have simply become too mighty to prosecute. Hussein Hasrat, an activist with the Afghan Civil Society and Human Rights Network, said: “They know if they want to investigate properly, it could lead to ethnic divisions, and the conflict could get worse.”
The Afghan government and donors are now “caught up in the fundamental contradiction of these past 16 years”, said Patricia Gossman, Afghanistan researcher with Human Rights Watch. “You can’t build a state that respects the rule of law while at the same time effectively endorsing impunity and turning a blind eye to rampant abuse.”
Dostum is part of a roster of warlords who have never been formally indicted for alleged crimes. Earlier this month, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who shelled Kabul ferociously during the civil war, returned to Kabul as part of a peace deal granting him immunity. Last week, the UN committee against torture called for the notorious Kandahar police chief Abdul Raziq to be prosecuted for torture and disappearances. In Afghanistan, few believe that will happen.
A veteran of three decades of conflict, Dostum has a long list of alleged atrocities to his name. In the 1990s, he ran his own mini state in the north where he printed money, drove an armoured Cadillac and indulged in a hedonistic lifestyle with alcohol.
At 63, he is believed to be ill and has regularly travelled to Turkey, a long-time patron, for treatment.
When Ghani included him on his election ticket in 2014, after previously calling him “a known killer”, he made Dostum apologise “to the people who suffered from the violence and civil war in the country”.
The former president Hamid Karzai, who also co-opted the Uzbek warlord, faced problems reminiscent of recent events.
In 2008, Dostum, then the army chief of staff, abducted another political rival, Akbar Bay, who had allegedly plotted to assassinate him and whom he allegedly also had raped. After a year-long standoff, Dostum went into exile in Turkey until Karzai called him back to tap into his voter base. According to cables released by WikiLeaks, the US ambassador leaned on the Turks, saying: “Arresting him would cause problems.”