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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » June 30, 2011
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Poles Cleared of Afghan War Crime
June 30, 2011   
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Seven Polish soldiers charged with committing a war crime in Nangar Khel, Afghanistan in 2007 were cleared by a Warsaw court on June 1.

“This is unprecedented in the history of Polish justice,” said judge Col. Mirosław Jaroszewski. The trial in Warsaw was the first of its kind in the history of the Polish army.

On Aug. 16, 2007, six people were killed when the village of Nangar Khel, in Afghanistan’s southeastern Paktika Province, was subjected to mortar and heavy machine gun fire. Another two people died later in hospital. Women and children were among the victims. Seriously wounded Afghan civilians were brought to Poland for treatment and compensation was paid to the families of those killed.

The incident occurred after two International Security Assistance Force vehicles were damaged by roadside bombs near the village. A group of Polish commandos arrived on the scene a few hours later to look for the Taliban fighters responsible for the attack. The Polish soldiers, who claimed that the Taliban had set up positions around the village, fired a high-caliber machine gun and a 60 mm mortar. At least four mortar shells fell on a civilian building.

Seven soldiers from Poland’s 18th Airborne Assault Battalion were charged. The prosecution alleged that the killing of eight civilians by firing on an undefended building that had no military significance constituted a war crime and requested prison terms of between five and 12 years.

The court, however, held that there was insufficient evidence to support a war crime conviction.

“In deciding this matter the court did not have material documentation in its possession that would have allowed it to precisely identify the places from where the firepower came, the places from where the witnesses observed the course of events on which they gave evidence, or to determine whether or not the buildings in which the injured persons were found could have been observed,” judge Jaroszewski said in explaining the court’s decision. He added that the ballistics evidence in the case did not allow all the places where the mortar shells fell to be precisely determined.

The court also held that there was no evidence that the soldiers had received an order to shell the village.

The prosecution alleged that an army captain privately ordered three soldiers to not only fire mortar shells on Taliban positions in the vicinity of Nangar Khel, but also on the village itself. The defense argued that the crude, non-regulation wording attributed to the captain was taken by his subordinates to be a command to seal off the village and search it as they had done on many occasions previously.

“The military prosecutor does not concur with this not-guilty verdict. It is our view that there was sufficient evidence to convict all the accused of the war crime of shelling the village and killing civilians,” said prosecutor Col. Jakub Mytych, adding that he would decide whether to appeal once he received a written justification for the court’s decision.

Top politicians and serving and retired senior Polish Army officers did not try to hide their satisfaction at the court decision.

“I was most gratified when I heard the news that the court had acquitted the soldiers charged in connection with the Nangar Khel case. My thoughts are with the soldiers and their families on this, what must be a happy day for them,” was how Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s Facebook entry read after the decision was announced.

Defense Minister Bogdan Klich added: “The honor of the Polish soldier was vindicated today. We have closed a difficult chapter. The Nangar Khel case was one of the events that led to changes in the legislation dealing with soldiers serving on overseas missions.” He stressed that all the accused bar one were still on active service. Klich said that all those acquitted would be able to continue their military careers and deserved promotion once the decision took effect.

“The decision to acquit all the soldiers charged in connection with the Nangar Khel case was a just one,” said General Stanisław Koziej, head of the National Security Bureau. Koziej believes the prosecutor was too hasty in alleging that the soldiers deliberately shot at civilians.

“That this even came to trial at all was a bad move. That charges like this could even have been laid on such dubious grounds was, I believe, a mistake on the part of the prosecutor,” said Koziej.

The sharpest response came from Waldemar Skrzypczak, the former land army commander who left the forces after a bitter conflict with the Ministry of Defense bosses. Skrzypczak claimed that the Nangar Khel affair had been manufactured from the word go for the benefit of the electoral battle between the Law and Justice (PiS) and Civic Platform (PO) parties in the run-up to the parliamentary elections held in the fall of 2007, which PiS lost.
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