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Afghanistan: Unchecked Violence Threatens Election

Insurgent War Crimes, Weak Government Response; Women Candidates at Risk

(New York) - Insurgent attacks on candidates and poor government security protection risk severely compromising Afghanistan's September 18, 2010 parliamentary election, Human Rights Watch said today. Candidates - as well as their staff members and election officials - face assassinations, kidnappings, and intimidation by insurgents as well as by rival candidates. Women candidates are facing the highest level of intimidation.

This is the second parliamentary election since the fall of the Taliban. The first was in 2005. The August 2009 presidential and provincial elections were held amid widespread violence, poor security, and allegations of serious corruption. Candidates, members of parliament, and election officials and monitors have expressed concerns to Human Rights Watch that security problems and corruption may have worsened since then and that the electoral process has not been reformed.

"Taliban attacks and the broad lack of confidence in the Afghan government to conduct a secure election threatens its validity," said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher at Human Right Watch. "Insurgent violence, particularly against women candidates, was inevitable, but the government's weak response was not."

The Taliban have claimed responsibility for killing three parliamentary candidates during the campaign period. On July 23 in Khost, Sayedullah Sayed, a candidate and religious scholar, was killed and 20 others were wounded when the mosque in which he was speaking was bombed. On July 24, the Taliban abducted Najibullah Gulisanti, candidate for Ghazni province, and killed him two weeks later after Taliban demands for a prisoner exchange were rejected. On August 29, gunmen killed another candidate, Haji Abdul Manan Noorzai, while he was walking to a mosque in Herat. While some candidates have complained to Human Rights Watch about the government's lack of provisions for protecting candidates, others have not requested help or turned it down, citing a lack of confidence in the Afghan security forces.

The Taliban and other insurgent groups have also killed and threatened campaign supporters and voters. On July 14 in Logar province, two Taliban insurgents on a motorbike shot dead a shopkeeper who had displayed a poster for a parliamentary candidate in his shop. News reports said that so-called "night letters" were later distributed warning villagers that they would face the same fate if they did as the shopkeeper had done.

In Niazai, Logar province, on July 16, the Taliban killed two brothers who supported a local candidate. Afghan election monitors reported that in Darnota district, Nangarhar province, Taliban have made house visits warning that they will cut off the fingers of people found with voter registration cards.

In early September, a Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, told reporters that, "Everyone affiliated with the election is our target - candidates, security forces, campaigners, election workers, voters are all our targets." Under the laws of war, which are applicable in Afghanistan, deliberate attacks on civilians, including government officials not directly taking part in the hostilities, are prohibited. Those ordering or conducting such attacks are responsible for war crimes.

"Attacks on candidates and voters are war crimes," Reid said. "It is sadly telling that the Taliban are willing to kill those who engage in this simple act of personal freedom."

Women candidates face escalating threats from both insurgents and rival candidates. In Herat on August 26, 10 people working for a woman running for parliament, Fauwzia Gilani, were abducted. Five were soon released. The Taliban initially denied responsibility, but later claimed that they had abducted five men. On August 29, five bodies with multiple gunshot wounds were discovered close to the abduction site.

Gilani told Human Rights Watch that she had received threatening phone calls prior to the abductions telling her to withdraw her candidacy, as well as messages after the abductions that if she withdrew her candidacy, her staff would be released. A local security official told Human Rights Watch that it is possible the abduction and killings were carried out by or for rival candidates.

In July, Mawlawi Shahzada, a member of parliament and candidate in the eastern province of Kunar, called a female candidate, Wagma Safi, an "infidel." Shahzada made the dangerous charge to his supporters gathered in Chawki district and said that anyone who votes for Safi would be an infidel. Safi told Human Rights Watch that she was concerned because such categorizations make individuals vulnerable to reprisal by insurgents or even members of their communities.

She filed a complaint with the Electoral Complaints Commission, which has a wide range of sanctions at its disposal, including disqualification of candidates, annulment of results, and referral to relevant criminal authorities for investigation. The Commission fined Shahzada 10,000 Afghanis (just over US$200). Safi said the fine was unlikely to deter further threatening behavior.

A female candidate from the central region who did not want her name or province made public told Human Rights Watch that she had received death threats from two rival candidates and that one of her campaigners had been severely wounded in an assault and told not to campaign again in the area.

In one northern province, letters have been distributed accusing a woman running for a parliamentary seat of being "un-Islamic" and a "prostitute." The letter also says a rival candidate has distributed videos proving the allegations. Questioning the religious faith and sexual propriety of candidates in this way puts candidates at risk and is particularly dangerous for women, Human Rights Watch said.

Under the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, "[a]busing, humiliating, intimidating," or "harassment or persecution" of women are deemed as "violence against women." In cases where harassment results from the misuse of status or position, perpetrators can be punished with imprisonment for not less than six months.

The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) said that the majority of threats against individual candidates reported to them were against women, including at least 40 incidents of threatening letters or phone calls in 10 provinces. Many of these incidents include threats of violence if the woman does not withdraw her candidacy.

The government has promised to make security personnel available for women running for parliament. But less than two weeks before the election, Human Rights Watch interviews with a number of election monitors, candidates, and women's rights activists suggest that the most women candidates have still not been provided with bodyguards, security advice, or transport security, even if they requested protection. Security was similarly inadequate during the 2009 elections. The Afghan government should rapidly address the security threats to women candidates, Human Rights Watch said.

"It is astonishing, given the threats and attacks, that the government continues to respond so inadequately to the security needs of women running for parliamentary seats," Reid said.

Election authorities have legitimate concerns about the possibility that suicide bombers will wear burqas in an attempt to breach security at polling places, Human Rights Watch said. There have been weeks of discussion among government departments about who has responsibility for ensuring that women will be stationed at the polls to carry out body checks, mirroring the failures in preparation for the 2009 presidential election. Consequently less than two weeks before the election, recruitment of female security staff for these jobs has barely begun, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has learned of serious allegations of government interference in campaigns in several provinces. One independent candidate said that several cabinet ministers have offered logistical support to "pro-government" candidates. Officials from the Free and Fair Election Foundation and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission told Human Rights Watch of a number of cases in which provincial governors, security chiefs, and senior civil servants have been accused of using government resources to support candidates, sometimes in an intimidating manner. There are also numerous allegations that fraudulent voter registration cards and ballot papers have been produced and traded.

The Interior Ministry and Office of the Attorney General should promptly and transparently respond to threats and attacks against candidates, campaign staff, election monitors, officials, and voters with serious and credible investigations and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said. Government officials should not automatically blame attacks on the Taliban and other insurgent groups - which commit most, but not all, campaign-related violence - as this allows rival candidates to carry out attacks and threats with impunity, Human Rights Watch said.

The government should take seriously attacks against women candidates, including making the availability of protection widely known, even if some candidates choose not to use it.

The Electoral Complaints Commission should also be prepared to use its strongest sanctions, including disqualification, when there is evidence of serious crimes by candidates, such as statements that put other candidates' lives at risk. The commission should refer instances involving criminal offenses to the Office of the Attorney General.

"In this tense political environment, these elections could have wide-reaching ramifications for Afghanistan's future stability," Reid said. "The government will have to do far more to persuade the Afghan people that it can - and will - guarantee the security and independence of these elections."

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