(New York) Targeted violence and looting by ethnic militias has uprooted Pashtun communities across northern Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. The displacement and insecurity could undermine the loya jirga process, which begins at the district level on April 13 and will lead in June to the selection of a new government for a two-year transitional period.

If northern Pashtuns are unable to take part in district or regional meetings to choose their representatives, then the validity of the entire loya jirga process will be called into question," said Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher for emergencies. "The international community must act now to guarantee the security of northern Pashtuns and other local minorities across Afghanistan as the loya jirga process begins."

The 56-page report, Paying for the Taliban's Crimes: Abuses Against Ethnic Pashtuns in Northern Afghanistan, documents cases of summary executions, beatings, sexual violence, abductions, and looting that have been committed since November 2001, when non-Pashtun Northern Alliance forces regained power in the north. The report's findings, gathered during four weeks of interviews with villagers, community leaders, and international observers in northern Afghanistan, include the following:

· Hazara gunmen killed 37 Pashtun men in the village of Bargah-e Afghani, in Chimtal district of Balkh province, in early December, after tying most of them up, beating them in front of their families, and demanding money to spare their lives;
· Two Pashtun men arrested by Uzbek soldiers in the Aibak market in Samangan province in late December were held for a week in a basement and beaten with cables until they agreed to pay money; and
· A Pashtun farmer in Nahrin district of Baghlan province was beaten for half an hour on February 20 in front of a Tajik commander who was demanding money from him. His wife, who tried to intercede, was kicked hard.

Despite cultural barriers to reporting sexual violence in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch was able to gather testimony from several rape survivors and witnesses. In one case from Balkh city in late December, a Pashtun woman recounted how she and her fourteen-year-old daughter were gang-raped by Hazara soldiers.

All three of the major armed factions in the north-the mainly Uzbek Junbish-i Milli-yi Islami, the mainly Tajik Jamiat-e Islami, and the Hazara Hizb-i Wahdat-are implicated in the violence against ethnic Pashtuns. Armed villagers from non-Pashtun communities have also looted and attacked Pashtuns with impunity in areas controlled by one or another of these parties.

The attacks are being carried out partly in reprisal for perceived support given to the Taliban in northern Afghanistan by local Pashtuns. The Taliban was dominated by Pashtuns from Kandahar and other southern provinces, and its forces were implicated in massacres, destruction of homes, and other serious abuses against non-Pashtun communities in the north between 1997 and 2001.

A three-person team appointed in February by Hamid Karzai, the chairman of Afghanistan's interim government, to investigate abuses against northern Pashtuns had findings similar to those of Human Rights Watch. In its report, Human Rights Watch welcomed the appointment but said that Chairman Karzai's capacity to implement the team's recommendations is limited. Key power in the north remains in the hands of regional warlords and local commanders, some of whom hold high office in the interim government and provincial administrations.

"The United States and its partners in the coalition against terrorism cannot abandon Afghanistan to parties that continue to commit human rights abuses," Bouckaert said. "It's only through the presence of an expanded international security force that Afghan citizens will have an opportunity to choose an accountable government and allow national institutions a chance to rebuild."

The Human Rights Watch report called on the international community to take the following steps:

· Support the expansion of the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan, which currently is limited to Kabul;
· Support the timely creation of a diverse and human rights-trained Afghan national army and exclude from it commanders and troops responsible for war crimes or serious human rights violations;
· Support efforts to establish accountability for past and current abuses committed in Afghanistan;
· Increase funding for human rights monitoring, including through the Afghan Human Rights Commission that is to be established under the Bonn agreement; and
· Ensure humanitarian assistance reaches northern Pashtuns and other minorities displaced by ethnically-targeted violence