(New York) - A new wave of violence and intimidation is threatening the process underway in Afghanistan to draft a new constitution, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Human Rights Watch called on President Karzai to speak out against the violence and to take action to minimize the number of warlords and their proxies attending the constitutional convention.

"These attacks on political freedom are putting Afghanistan's future at risk," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. "The drafting of a new constitution is a critical step in Afghanistan's reconstruction and is essential to protect the rights of the weakest members of Afghan society. What hurts the constitutional process today will hurt Afghans for a long time to come."

Elections to select delegates for the constitutional loya jirga, or "grand council," began this month in regional centers around Afghanistan. Through November, regional representatives from the June 2002 loya jirga will meet to elect delegates for the constitutional loya jirga. Those elected will gather in Kabul in December for the loya jirga. A Constitutional Commission is currently finalizing a draft constitution that will be debated at that meeting.

Human Rights Watch conducted dozens of interviews over the last three weeks documenting regional military commanders and troops threatening loya jirga candidates and regional representatives, issuing death threats, and nominating themselves for the loya jirga, in violation of a July 2003 decree from President Karzai forbidding military commanders and local government officials from attending the loya jirga.

Human Rights Watch found that abuses had already occurred in the two provinces that held special early elections-Badakshan and Ghor. In both places, candidates were intimidated and threatened to keep them from taking part in the elections. In Badakshan, a nominated candidate who had received support from other candidates withdrew his candidacy after a senior commander, allied with former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, allegedly told him, "Avoid nominating yourself, otherwise we will kill you and throw your corpse into the Kokcha river."

Other candidates received similar explicit threats from commanders in Kandahar and Herat, and appear to have been intimidated by commanders in several other provinces.

Human Rights Watch called on powerful local and national leaders to act responsibly, and order the men under their control to avoid interfering with local processes to elect loya jirga delegates.

Human Rights Watch also urged President Karzai and the international community to work together to ensure that the constitutional loya jirga is not marred by the presence of warlords and other de facto strongmen, as was the Emergency Loya Jirga of June 2002.

"A stronger message needs to be sent to the warlords," said Adams. "President Karzai, the United Nations, and the entire international community have to make it crystal clear that-unlike last time-the warlords and strongmen will be kept out."

Human Rights Watch called on President Karzai to ensure that procedures for investigating and remedying threats are met.

"President Karzai needs to tell all Afghans that if they order or commit acts of violence or intimidation they will not be allowed to participate in the loya jirga or next year's elections."

Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) to expand protection of vulnerable delegates and regional representatives by increasing the number of human rights monitors working around the country, establishing closer contact with persons and groups likely to face threats, facilitating the assistance of international peacekeeping forces in monitoring (where feasible), and reporting on local leaders implicated in threats.

Human Rights Watch also encouraged UNAMA and the NATO leadership of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to explore whether peacekeeping forces can be deployed in coming weeks to strengthen the protection of vulnerable persons during local elections.