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(New York) - A proposal to reestablish the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Afghanistan raises serious concerns about potential abuse of the rights of women and vulnerable groups, Human Rights Watch said today.

President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet has approved the proposal to reestablish the department, and it will go to Afghanistan’s parliament when it reconvenes later this summer. It is not clear what the department’s enforcement power would be. Nematullah Shahrani, the minister of Haj and religious affairs, who would oversee the department, has stated that it would focus on alcohol, drugs, crime and corruption. Afghanistan’s criminal laws already address these issues.

“Afghan women and girls face increasing insecurity, and it’s more important for the government to address how to improve their access to public life rather than limit it further,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Reinstatement of this controversial department risks moving the discussion away from the vital security and human rights problems now engulfing the country.”

In a recently released report, “Lesson in Terror: Attacks on Education in Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch identified the lack of access to education, especially for girls, as jeopardizing the country’s future development and security. Human Rights Watch pointed out that the proposed vice and virtue department does not address the real problems of increasing insecurity in the south and southeast, particularly attacks on schools, teachers and students that are preventing children from attending school.

“The proposed vice and virtue department’s vague standards for upholding morality could be used to silence critical voices, and further limit women’s and girls’ access to work, health care and education,” Coursen-Neff said.

A female member of parliament told Human Rights Watch that the proposal was “a symbolic decision from the government but I’m worried about it, maybe as always there will be some extremist violence against freedom of speech on women’s issues. The only hope is the Parliament.”

Under the Taliban, the vice and virtue department became a notorious symbol of arbitrary abuses, particularly against Afghan women and girls. The department ruthlessly enforced restrictions on women and men through public beatings and imprisonment. The department beat women publicly for, among other things, wearing socks that were not sufficiently opaque; showing their wrists, hands, or ankles; and not being accompanied by a close male relative. They stopped women from educating girls in home-based schools, working, and begging. They also beat men for trimming their beards.

President Karzai came under pressure from conservative political figures two months ago to reestablish the department in order to counter anti-Western propaganda by opposition groups. The president then appointed a panel with representatives from the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs, and the Supreme Court, which drafted a proposal and presented it to the cabinet. The cabinet approved the draft and plans to submit it for parliamentary approval when the Afghan National Assembly reconvenes later this summer.

Human Rights Watch called on the international community to make clear a commitment to Afghanistan’s long-term security and reconstruction, and to avoid a return to repressive past practices.

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