ISLAMABAD — The Pakistani military on Friday ordered an investigation into a video that appears to show soldiers executing six civilians, following the recording’s exposure in the international media and U.S. pressure.
The gruesome video, which was posted on the internet last month, was supposedly taken in the Swat valley, the region in the north west of the country where Pakistan military launched an offensive in May last year against Taliban extremists who had annexed it. The emergence of the jerky recording, which seems to be taken by a mobile phone camera, follows reports of hundreds of extra-judicial killings in Swat by the Pakistani military. Washington strongly backed the Swat operation.
Friday, Human Rights Watch, the U.S.-based campaigning group which has documented summary executions and other abuses in Swat, said that although it could not comment on the authenticity of this video, enough evidence of violations in Swat already existed to invoke American laws that require funding to be cut off to units guilty of war crimes. A key anti-terror ally, the Pakistani military receives some $2 billion a year in U.S. aid.
The undated video, which lasts over five minutes, shows six young men, blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs, led into a compound and lined up by figures wearing what appear to be the uniforms of the Pakistani army. A firing squad of at least six uniformed men assembles and shoots the civilians. They fall to the ground and agonized moaning can be heard. Several uniformed men then move in and finish the victims off with rifle shots from close range.
“It is not expected of a professional army to engage in excesses against the people whom it is trying to guard against the scourge of terrorism,” said army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, according to a statement from the Pakistani military.
The Pakistani military had initially dismissed the video as a fake. Kayani on Friday promised action against the culprits if the video was found to be genuine but cautioned against “hasty conclusions about involvement of Pakistan army soldiers”, saying that “terrorists” had disguised themselves with military uniforms in the past.
The video emerged on Facebook, from a group calling itself the Pashtuns International Association, and also on jihadist websites, where it was used to invoke outrage from extremists. Pashtuns are the ethnic group in the north west, including Swat, where the Pashtuns International Association said the recording took place. The Facebook link has subsequently been taken off. Up to now, the Pakistani media, which is wary of criticizing the country’s military, had almost completely ignored the story.
Richard Snelsire, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, said that the American ambassador, Anne Patterson, had raised the issue of the video with Kayani in a pre-scheduled meeting last week.
“We’re supportive of the idea of an investigation,” said Snelsire. “We’ll await the results.”
Human rights groups welcomed the announcement of the inquiry, which will be headed by a Pakistani major general and is believed to be the first of its kind. Ali Dayan Hasan, south Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that the military had never held any of its personnel accountable for abuses in counter-terrorism operations.
“We believe that the Leahy Law requires funding to cease to units guilty of such abuses,” said Hasan. “Regardless of the authenticity of this video, there is enough well-documented evidence of abuses in Swat to warrant invoking the Leahy Law.”
The so-called Leahy Law, which first appeared in 1997 and is attached to defense and foreign appropriation legislation, prohibits U.S. military assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights with impunity. Named after its principal sponsor, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the law is considered weak by some and allows the Secretary of Defense to employ a waiver under “extraordinary circumstances”. The law requires the identification of the actual military unit involved, not a blanket provision for all the armed services of a country.
Human Rights Watch, in a report released in July, said it had verified 50 instances of extra-judicial killings in Swat and believed there were many more cases. It singled out the 12th Punjab Regiment as a perpetrator of abuses. It was unclear which unit was filmed in the internet video or even if they were really soldiers.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent organization, stated in May that “282 extrajudicial killings have taken place in Swat since the military operation ended in July 2009”, including 48 bodies found in a single day in October last year.
I.A. Rehman [goes by his initials], secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said: “This [investigation] is a good beginning. Maybe it will have an effect.”
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Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent