(Kabul) – Afghan authorities should investigate the arrests and possible torture of peaceful protesters by security forces in Kabul, Human Rights Watch said today. The abuses appear intended to silence public dissent against the government.
On May 2, 2013, hundreds of people participated in a demonstration in Kabul’s Cinema Pamir neighborhood organized by the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan to protest the government’s failure to prosecute abusive warlords, including those now in official positions. State security forces cut short the protest and arrested at least nine people. Six of them described to Human Rights Watch being mistreated in custody for up to three days, including by being severely beaten with punches, kicks, and rifle butts while being interrogated about the protest organizers.
“The arrest and brutal beating of peaceful protesters seems aimed at sending a message to all Afghans not to publicly criticize the government,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “President Karzai should order an immediate investigation of the security forces’ actions and appropriately punish all those responsible for these abuses.”
The six people interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that much of their mistreatment occurred while they were being transported following arrest or in custody while handcuffed to a wall. Human Rights Watch observed physical injuries consistent with the detainees’ accounts, including bruises and swelling. Two were seriously injured, including one whose knee was struck with a rifle butt, and will require surgery. Several detainees reported confiscation of their personal property. All were released without being charged with any criminal offense.
Human Rights Watch has requested information on the actions of the security forces from the Ministry of Interior, but has received no response.
The Ministry of Interior granted the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan a permit to hold the May 2 protest, but may have imposed excessive security arrangements. Security forces encouraged residents and local business people to leave the area and refused access to several hundred protesters.
A journalist told Human Rights Watch that security forces prevented her from covering the protest and conducting interviews.
The Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, a legally registered political party since 2004, has previously faced government harassment, Human Rights Watch said. The party has not fielded political candidates, but has been outspoken on controversial issues, including organizing protests against the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan, the execution of Afghans in Iran, and civilian casualties caused by international forces. It has also spoken out against Taliban abuses and in support of women’s rights.
The May 2 protest focused criticism on former commanders, many now holding government positions, whom the Solidarity Party alleges committed past atrocities. The protest occurred near the date of the 20th anniversary of “8 Saur,” a national holiday in Afghanistan that celebrates the victory of mujahidin insurgents over the communist government on April 28, 1992. It was also close to another important date in Afghan history, April 27, 1978, the day a communist government first came to power.
The Solidarity Party refers to both days as “calamities,” citing destruction and human rights abuses committed both by the communists after taking power in 1978, and by mujahidin parties after the fall of the communist government in 1992. Protesters carried signs with photos of those they accuse of human rights abuses with faces crossed out in red paint. A statement issued by the party mentioned a number of sitting officials by name.
Following a Solidarity Party protest with similar messages in 2012, the upper house of the Afghan parliament, the Meshrano Jirga, wrote to the Ministry for Parliamentary Affairs saying that the party’s activities should be suspended and the party investigated by law enforcement agencies. Under Afghan law, the Ministry of Justice has the power to suspend political parties, but the Meshrano Jirga does not. In this case, however, the Justice Ministry forwarded the Meshrano Jirga letter to the Solidarity Party, appearing to endorse the Meshrano Jirga’s recommendation. After Human Rights Watch issued a statement expressing concern, President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman clarified that the party had not been suspended.
Human Rights Watch has also documented other threats against free speech in Afghanistan. These include efforts to legislate greater restrictions on media freedom and a growing number of cases of criminal investigation of journalists.
“The government’s brutal response to the May 2 protest is one of a growing number of danger signs of government repression as the 2014 presidential elections approach,” Adams said. “These need to be addressed sooner rather than later.”