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Afghanistan: Campaigning Against Fear

Attacks, Intimidation as Parliamentary and Provincial Polls Launch

(Kabul) - The political process leading up to Afghanistan’s parliamentary and provincial elections on September 18 has been undermined by insurgent attacks and intimidation by warlords, Human Rights Watch said in a new report issued today.

Technical preparations for the election have been largely successful and the polls will likely take place without serious disruption—although attacks by insurgent forces could derail voting in some areas.

However, Human Rights Watch’s new report, Afghanistan on the Eve of Parliamentary and Provincial Elections, documents an underlying climate of fear among many voters and candidates, especially in remote, rural areas—an atmosphere that has negatively impacted the political environment in the lead-up to the elections. And many Afghans are deeply concerned that alleged war criminals and human rights abusers are candidates and that others retain significant power behind the scenes as party or faction leaders.

“The Afghan people are clearly eager to participate in elections that will help them move away from the rule of the gun," said Sam Zarifi, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “But they are disappointed that the government and its international partners haven’t done more to prevent warlords and rights abusers from dominating Afghanistan’s political space."

Human Rights Watch condemned Taliban forces and other militias under Gulbuddin Hekmatyar for their armed attacks on election workers, candidates and other civilians—including Islamic clerics who spoke in favor of the government or the election process.

“The Taliban and other militias are trying to create a climate of fear around the elections by intentionally attacking election workers, candidates and clerics," said Zarifi.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about barriers to women’s participation in the political process, including obstacles women candidates face in traveling and speaking publicly. In August, Human Rights Watch released a report about threats and other challenges facing women candidates and voters. (See Campaigning against Fear: Women’s Participation in Afghanistan’s 2005 Elections)

Human Rights Watch’s new report is based on over 100 interviews with candidates, as well as interviews with election officials and observers, human rights workers and other officials. Human Rights Watch said that voters and candidates in many areas were also intimidated by ongoing human rights abuses and repression by warlords and local strongmen, compounded by decades of political instability and violence.

Interviews with candidates and voters point to an environment of self-censorship in many parts of the country. Several candidates told Human Rights Watch they were afraid to challenge local commanders or warlords by name, and that they have censored their own speech to avoid potential dangers. As one candidate said: “When we give a speech, we don’t name these people [local commanders], or criticize them, we just make veiled references to them, and to ‘warlordism.’” Said another candidate: “We refer to past crimes [committed by commanders], we talk about the need for expertise instead of guns. That is as much as we can say. To say anymore would cause real trouble.”

Several candidates described how they are afraid to travel outside of urban areas to campaign. Some candidates from southern and southeastern areas said that they fear both harassment by local militias and attacks by Taliban or other insurgent forces. Some said they limited criticism of the Taliban, for fear of retaliation.

Candidates and voters across the country expressed concern that several notorious military commanders and leaders are running in the elections—commanders or officials implicated in war crimes and human rights abuses that took place during the last 25 years of conflict.

Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Mullah Taj Mohammad, Younis Qanooni, Haji Almas and Mullah Ezatullah—candidates from in and around Kabul—are implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity that occurred during hostilities in Kabul in the early 1990s.

Sayed Mohammad Gulabzoi, a parliamentary candidate from Khost, served as a senior minister overseeing the brutal police force in the Soviet-backed Afghan government in the 1980s.

And former high-level Taliban officials and commanders running for office include: Mohammed Khaksar, the Taliban’s deputy interior minister; Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, the Taliban’s foreign minister; and Qalamuddin, the minister of the department of vice and virtue, which enforced the Taliban’s severe social restrictions.

Many Afghans said they were disappointed that commanders with records of abuse were allowed to run in the elections. As one candidate said: “If the central government cannot stand up to them, will not stand up to them, how can they expect the people here—who live with these blood-thirsty commanders every day—to vote against them? We should not have to bear the pressure—it is the job of the government.”

Election authorities did disqualify 32 candidates—commanders who had maintained links to armed factions—but this did not include some of the more senior commanders implicated in past abuses. Afghanistan’s current electoral law allows disqualification where candidates violate electoral laws or maintain ties to armed factions, but it does not provide for candidates to be disqualified based on allegations about their past records.

Human Rights Watch urged observers to assess the electoral process according to international standards.

“Violence and fear have affected these elections,” said Zarifi. “How great the effect has been is difficult to assess. But a sober and clear-eyed analysis of these elections will be essential if better elections, reaching closer to international standards, are to be achieved in the future.”

Human Rights Watch also urged the Afghan government and its international allies to redouble efforts to improve security and human rights protections during and after the elections. Human Rights Watch said that the United Nations should increase the number of human rights officers in the country. The current number is still well below what has been deployed in other post-conflict areas. Most importantly, troop contributing countries should maintain current force levels of the International Security Assistance Force to guard against possible violence after the elections.

“It is important not to draw down international troop numbers too quickly after the election,” said Zarifi. “If there is violence after the polls, it could derail the political process. It is vital that international security forces remain.”

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about a provision in Afghanistan’s electoral law that allows losing candidates to take the seats of winning candidates who die or resign from office—the so-called “assassination clause.”

“The so-called assassination clause should be repealed on an urgent basis,” said Zarifi. “The last thing Afghanistan needs is the election’s losers murdering the winners to take their seats.”

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