(For more on Afghanistan, click on [nAFPAK])
By Jonathon Burch
KABUL, March 10 (Reuters) - A leading international rights group urged the Afghan government on Wednesday to retract a law passed by President Hamid Karzai that allows perpetrators of war crimes and human rights abuses to go unpunished.
In a statement released to media, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the amnesty law had been published in the official gazette, bringing it into effect, despite promises by Karzai he would not sign it.
"Afghans have been losing hope in their government because so many alleged war criminals and human rights abusers remain in positions of power," HRW Asia director Brad Adams said in the statement.
"The amnesty law was passed to protect these people from prosecution, sending a message to Afghans that not only are these rights abusers here to stay, but more might soon be welcomed in."
Karzai travelled to Pakistan on Wednesday and his palace in Kabul could not be immediately reached for comment.
It was not clear when Karzai passed the law because the date of the gazette was December 200. It may only have been published as late as January this year, said HRW. Although passed by parliament in 2007, the law could only come into effect with Karzai's approval.
HRW said the amnesty law, called 'The National Stability and Reconciliation Law' allows anyone engaged in armed conflict before Afghanistan's Interim Administration in December 2001 to "enjoy all their legal rights" and "not be prosecuted".
"MASSIVE WAR CRIMES"
Afghanistan has endured three decades of war in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed. Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the country was plunged into a bloody civil war with different factions battling for control.
Many of those factions' guerrilla commanders now hold positions of power in the government to the dismay of many ordinary Afghans. The amnesty law would effectively absolve them of any crimes committed before 2001.
In January, Karzai confirmed the re-appointment of ex-militia chief General Abdul Rashid Dostum to a top military position, sparking widespread criticism from the West and international and Afghan rights groups.
Washington and other capitals have accused Dostum of "massive war crimes", including the death of some 2,000 Taliban fighters who suffocated in cargo containers in which they were being held after surrendering to Dostum in 2001.
A spokesperson for the British Embassy in Kabul said they were aware the law had been passed.
"We welcome their (Afghan government) commitment, reiterated at the London conference, to ensure that the human rights of the Afghan people are promoted and protected as enshrined in the Afghan Constitution," the spokesperson said, when asked to comment on the new law.
It is not the first time Karzai has ushered through a law after promising not to pass it, or pledging to make changes to the law before signing it only to revoke those changes later.
In 2009, Karzai pushed through a controversial law for Shi'ite Muslims criticised by rights groups and Western leaders, after some articles were seen to greatly infringe on women's rights and even legalise marital rape. (Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)