By Robert Birsel
KABUL (Reuters) - Thousands of Afghans are hoping for justice from the International Criminal Court (ICC) with Islamist militants, the government and U.S.-led forces all expected to be the subject of investigations, and possibly, trials.
ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked a pre-trial chamber of judges in November for authorisation to launch a full investigation into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan.
She said there was a "reasonable basis to believe" such crimes had been committed by all sides in the conflict and ICC judges are now examining submissions filed by a Jan. 31 deadline.
"In Afghanistan, we have thousands of victims," said Ehsan Qaane, a lawyer working with the Transitional Justice Coordination Group, which helped victims prepare submissions.
"The people behind these atrocities do not face any serious criminal justice process in this country, so they're committing crimes without fear."
The ICC does not release details of the submissions it receives and only a handful of people have come forward to say they have filed complaints with it. No one in Afghanistan who has filed a case against U.S. forces has said so publicly.
One person who has spoken out is politician Ahmad Ishchi who says Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum ordered his men to abduct, beat and sexually assault him in 2016.
"I hope the International Criminal Court grants me justice so I can regain my dignity," Ishchi told Reuters in his well-guarded office in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Dostum, who is in Turkey, has not been charged with any offence and has denied the accusations.
The government said a year ago that seven of Dostum's bodyguards were being questioned.
The status of the investigation remains unclear but Ishchi said he had seen no progress. Asked about fears his case could stir factional tension, he said there was nothing political about it.
Afghan journalists have also filed submissions to the ICC against the Taliban and other militants for attacks on media workers.
Mujeeb Khalvatgar, direct of the media freedom organisation Nai, said the failure to take action against those who attacked journalists only fed impunity.
"Encouraging impunity influences the work we are doing, the values we are working for and the biggest achievement we have, which is freedom of expression and a free media," Khalvatgar told Reuters.
Last year was the bloodiest for journalists in Afghanistan, with 21 killed, an increase of nearly 50 percent from 2016, and 150 other cases of violence, he said.
While his group had cases involving the government and U.S.-led international military forces, he said they had been taken up with them and would be dealt with separately, not as part of his group's ICC submissions, which focus on the militants.
Khalvatgar said the militants opposed a free media.
The Taliban deny targeting journalists but say they object to those who follow an agenda and are one-sided.
Taliban sources said the group had discussed filing cases with the ICC but a Taliban spokesman declined to confirm or deny if any had been.
Cases aimed at U.S.-led international forces are believed to involve civilian casualties in fighting and allegations of torture while in custody.
The ICC has said there were preliminary grounds to believe U.S. forces committed war crimes in Afghanistan and at CIA detention facilities elsewhere in 2003 and 2004.
Former U.S. administrations opposed the court’s establishment, citing fears that American service members would be targeted by politically motivated prosecutions, but later backed ad hoc investigations.
An ICC investigation of U.S. personnel would be "wholly unwarranted and unjustified," a U.S. government official said.
"More broadly, our overall assessment is that commencement of an ICC investigation will not serve the interests of either peace or justice in Afghanistan," the official added.
The Afghan government has raised concern about the impact of ICC investigations on stability.
Afghan U.N. representative Mahmood Saikal told a meeting of state parties to the ICC in December that Afghanistan would have preferred the prosecutor to have "held off" her request for a full investigation.
"The unique set of circumstances of our stabilisation efforts requires a comprehensive approach that aims to ensure justice, while preserving the political stability, which is fundamentally important in any post-conflict setting," he said.
(Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)