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Families, rights groups decry punishments for Kunduz hospital strike

By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 30, 2016

KABUL, Afghanistan — Victims’ family members and human rights groups on Friday expressed disappointment with the Pentagon’s decision to hand down nonjudicial punishments, rather than court-martial, 16 personnel held accountable for an airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz last year.

Abdul Samad, 41, a resident of Kunduz city whose nephew was killed in the strike, said the attack was an "inhumane act" that violated national and international laws.

"I wish they were in our country then we could get them convicted according to our own laws," Samad said in a telephone interview. "Right now, they are 100 percent murders and they should be treated as murders in their own country ... and we want the United States to implement the law over them as murders."

The punishments will have "severe repercussions" for those involved, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command said during a briefing Friday. The servicemembers at fault may face blocked promotions and separation from the military, he said.

No criminal charges have been filed, and no one will face court-martial.

Doctors Without Borders, which goes by its French initials MSF, has been vocal in its criticism, calling the attack on the hospital "relentless and brutal," characterizing it as a war crime, and repeatedly demanding an independent inquiry by an international body.

The briefing amounted to "an admission of an uncontrolled military operation … during which U.S. forces failed to follow the basic laws of war," MSF President Meinie Nicolai said Friday in a statement. "It is incomprehensible that, under the circumstances described by the U.S., the attack was not called off."

The hospital airstrike in the early morning hours of Oct. 3 killed 14 staff members, 24 patients and four caretakers.

The medical center was "razed to the ground," MSF General Director Christoper Stokes said in a speech in Kabul in November.

Votel said the hospital was a protected site and had been on a "no-strike" list, but in the rush to get the U.S. gunship in the air, "the crew did not get all the preparatory information they would normally have received."

He said the strike should not be considered a war crime because it was "unintentional," which he said "takes it out of the realm of being a deliberate war crime."

Nicolai, however, said the "threshold that must be crossed" is not whether it was intentional or not and that combatants "cannot escape their responsibilities on the battlefield simply by ruling out the intent to attack a protected structure."

The organization’s statement called the administrative punishments "out of proportion to the destruction" and said they are unlikely to deter future war crimes.

U.N. investigators said in a report last December that even if U.S. troops did not knowingly target the hospital, they still could have committed war crimes if they had not taken precautions to protect civilians.

More than half a million people have signed a petition asking the Obama administration to authorize an independent review of the incident. Other humanitarian organizations have joined the call for an independent inquiry.

In a statement Thursday, Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security With Human Rights program, echoed the call for a criminal inquiry.

"To prevent the principles of international humanitarian law from being further eroded, the U.S. government must respect its obligation to independently investigate serious violations of international humanitarian law and ensure those responsible are prosecuted," Shah said.

Last month, shortly after taking charge of the forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson traveled to Kunduz, where he offered his condolences and "humbly and respectfully" asked forgiveness.

Votel on Friday noted that many U.S. officials had apologized and expressed condolences to the victims. He also cited "modest payments" meant to express sympathy that had been paid out to more than 170 victims of the attacks. The families of those killed were offered $6,000; the wounded were offered $3,000, he said. But the payments are not meant to be compensation, and earlier this month a New York Times editorial criticized the Pentagon, calling the sums "wholly inadequate."

For Samad, the man whose nephew was killed, those responsible for the strike should get prison time, but he said no no punishment would restore what the victims have lost.

"It will not give us anything," he said. "But at least it should be a strong lesson to those in the future that they should not bomb hospitals."

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report

garland.chad@stripes.com
 

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