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Conviction comes on war crimes

An Afghan court convicted a former intelligence chief and sentenced him to death Saturday for killing hundreds of people during an especially bloody period of communist rule in the country's first war crimes trial following more than two decades of conflict.

Asadullah Sarwari, who has been in prison since 1992 for crimes committed in the late 1970s, sat in silence as the verdict was read. The court said Sarwari should be hanged for his crimes. Sarwari, who blamed the disappearances on others in the government, said he would appeal.

"The government at the time was like a machine, and I was just a part of the machine," said Sarwari, a burly man of about 60.

Sarwari was cleared of a second charge of attempting to orchestrate a coup against the mujaheddin government of the early 1990s.

Afghan human rights advocates and international observers had condemned the trial as a sham.

The session Saturday included emotional testimony from several people who said they had been arrested by Sarwari's forces or saw the arrests. Since the overthrow of the repressive Taliban government in 2001 and the emergence of democracy, Afghans have wrestled with how to confront their brutal past. Most Afghans want war criminals brought to justice. But government officials and their Western backers, particularly the United States, have tried to avoid revisiting Afghanistan's past through trials and investigations.

The Sarwari trial is among the first indications that that attitude is beginning to change.