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(New York) - The Afghan parliament should immediately reinstate Malalai Joya, a member suspended for criticizing colleagues, and revise parliamentary procedures that restrict freedom of speech, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 21, 2007, the Lower House of the Afghan parliament voted to suspend Joya for comments she made during a television interview the previous day. It is unclear whether Joya’s suspension will run until the current parliamentary session ends in several weeks or whether she will be suspended for the remainder of her term in office, which ends in 2009. In addition to her suspension from parliament, several legislators have said that Joya could be sued for contempt in a court of law.

“Malalai Joya is a staunch defender of human rights and a powerful voice for Afghan women, and she shouldn’t have been suspended from parliament,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Joya’s comments don’t warrant the punishment she received and they certainly don’t warrant court proceedings.”

Joya had criticized the parliament for failing to accomplish enough for the Afghan people, saying, “A stable or a zoo is better [than the legislature], at least there you have a donkey that carries a load and a cow that provides milk. This parliament is worse than a stable or a zoo.”

On May 22, a recorded version of Joya’s interview was shown during a session of parliament. Afterward, a majority of her colleagues found her guilty of violating article 70 of the Afghan legislature’s rules of procedure, which forbids lawmakers from criticizing one another. Joya’s specific crime was “insulting the institution of parliament.”

Human Rights Watch noted that members of parliament have regularly criticized each other, but no one else has been suspended.

“The article banning criticism of parliament is an unreasonable rule that violates the principle of free speech enshrined in international law and valued around the world,” said Adams. “The Afghan parliament should be setting an example by promoting and protecting free expression, not by stamping it out.”

Human Rights Watch urged the Afghan parliament to take steps to revise article 70 and ensure that elected representatives can speak freely without fear of suspension or lawsuits.

Joya, 28, is the youngest member of the Afghan legislature. As a 19-year-old refugee in Pakistan, she taught literacy courses to other Afghan women. During the Taliban years, she ran an orphanage and health clinic in Afghanistan. In 2003, she gained international attention for speaking out publicly against warlords involved in drafting the Afghan Constitution. Two years later, she was the top vote-getter from Farah province in Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections, and was easily elected to the lower house of the legislature.

Since her election, Joya has continued to be an outspoken defender and promoter of the rights of Afghan women and children. She has also continued to publicly call for accountability for war crimes, even those perpetrated by fellow parliamentarians.

Joya has survived four assassination attempts, travels with armed guards and reportedly never spends two nights in the same place.

“Joya is an inspiring example of courage,” said Adams. “Afghanistan’s international friends should not hesitate to speak out in her defense.”

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