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(New York) - Afghan warlords and political strongmen supported by the United States and other nations are engendering a climate of fear in Afghanistan that is threatening efforts to adopt a new constitution and could derail national elections scheduled for mid-2004, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The reportwarns that violence, political intimidation, and attacks on women and girls are discouraging political participation and endangering gains made on women's rights in Afghanistan over the last year.

"Human rights abuses in Afghanistan are being committed by gunmen and warlords who were propelled into power by the United States and its coalition partners after the Taliban fell in 2001," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "These men and others have essentially hijacked the country outside of Kabul. With less than a year to go before national elections, Afghanistan's human rights situation appears to be worsening."

The 101-page report, "Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing for Us": Human Rights Abuses in Southeast Afghanistan, documents army and police troops kidnapping Afghans and holding them for ransom in unofficial prisons; breaking into households and robbing families; raping women, girls and boys; and extorting shopkeepers and bus, truck and taxi drivers. The report also describes political organizers, journalists and media editors being threatened with death, arrested and harassed by army, police and intelligence agents. The subject area of the report, the southeast of Afghanistan and Kabul city, is one of the most densely populated areas of Afghanistan.

Because soldiers are targeting women and girls, many are staying indoors, especially in rural areas, making it impossible for them to attend school, go to work, or actively participate in the country's reconstruction. In many places, human rights abuses are driving many Afghan families to keep their girls out of school. The atmosphere of violence, along with resurgent religious fundamentalism in parts of the country, is endangering the most important human rights improvement since the end of the Taliban--the ability of girls to go back to school.

"The fact is that most girls in Afghanistan are still not in school," said Adams. "In many cases, returning refugee families who sent their girls to school in Pakistan or Iran are afraid to do the same in Afghanistan."

The testimony of victims and witnesses implicates soldiers and police under the command of many high-level military and political officials in Afghanistan. These include Mohammad Qasim Fahim, the Minister of Defense; Hazrat Ali, the military leader of the Eastern Region; Younis Qanooni, the Minister of Education; Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former president of Afghanistan; and Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, a powerful former mujahidin leader to whom many of the officials involved in the documented abuses in Kabul city and province remain loyal.

The report urges the Afghan government to sideline and pressure abusive leaders and to seek more international assistance in its efforts.

Human Rights Watch called on the United States, the United Kingdom, Iran, Russia and other external powers to end their support for local strongmen and commanders involved in human rights abuses.

"External support for warlords is destabilizing Afghanistan," said Adams. "The United States and the United Kingdom, in particular, need to decide whether they are with President Karzai and other reformers in Kabul or with the warlords. The longer they wait, the more difficult it will be to loosen the warlords' grip on power."

Human Rights Watch emphasized the need for the Afghan government and the international community to redouble efforts to reform the Afghan Ministry of Defense. The Ministry of Defense in Kabul is currently dominated by the political and military faction "Shura-e Nazar," a loose alliance of former mujahidin parties. Making the ministry more ethnically and politically representative is a vital prerequisite for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs that could lessen the power of abusive military rulers and their troops.

Human Rights Watch urged NATO to expand the geographic scope of the U.N. authorized security force, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), currently stationed only in Kabul, when it takes over ISAF command in August. Human Rights Watch also urged NATO to widen ISAF's mandate to include disarmament and human rights protection. Plans to deploy more international Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) may be a positive step if they focus on security, but they are not a substitute for an expanded security force.

Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations to increase its human rights monitoring and protection efforts through the deployment of significant numbers of U.N. human rights officers around the country.

"With more U.N. human rights workers on the ground, victims will be better able to seek redress and protection. An increase in monitoring will have the added benefit of giving the Afghan administration and the international community better information about what is happening around the country," said Adams. "This is standard operating procedure in other U.N. missions, but so far the United Nations has refused to take this step."

Human Rights Watch also urged the United Nations to increase its public reporting on the human rights situation and to supply more personnel to work side-by-side with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

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