Afghan democrats face threats

Police beatings and a lack of legal protections stunt political parties before elections next June.

During the dark years of Taliban rule, members of Afghanistan's opposition Republican Party worked underground, fearful of beatings, arrest, and execution.

Twenty-one months after a US-led coalition drove the radical Islamic movement from Afghanistan, they are still underground.

"The police threaten us all the time,'' says Faiz Mohammad Ghori, a student member the Republican Party in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. "We have to keep our heads down - you never know when they're coming back.''

Afghanistan's fledgling opposition parties say the Northern Alliance factions that helped oust the Taliban in 2001 are using threats and force to keep them out of elections scheduled for next year.

The intimidation could stunt the influence of moderates and liberals, boosting the strength of Islamic fundamentalists in a future Afghan government, further alienating Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns.

Recent reports by New York-based Human Rights Watch and the Brussels-based International Crisis Group accused forces loyal to Defense Minister Muhammad Qasim Fahim and other Northern Alliance commanders of using police, soldiers, and intelligence agents to intimidate dissenting politicians, newspaper editors, and ethnic Pashtun leaders. (A spokesman for Mr. Fahim didn't return calls for comment.)

Afghanistan's president has acknowledged that general human rights abuses persist, but argues that the situation is improving. "There is no doubt that there are violations committed by certain gun holders,'' Hamid Karzai told the BBC recently. "But the intensity of this, the spirit of this, has reduced considerably.''

Under the terms of the December 2001 Bonn Agreement between the victorious antiTaliban factions, President Karzai's government must create a constitution and hold elections by June 2004. It would be the first in decades.

In October, a constitutional loya jirga, or grand council, is planned to decide how Afghanistan will be governed and what role Islam will play in the government and courts.

Voter registration and elections are set to follow in June, though Afghans don't yet know what or whom they will be voting for - a president, a parliament, or some other post.

With elections just 10 months away, would-be politicians including Western-style democrats, monarchists, and the mujahideen who currently form the backbone of Karzai's government are jockeying to raise their profiles.

Many Northern Alliance commanders who fought the Communists and the Taliban have regrouped under Fahim. An ethnic Tajik from the Panjshir Valley, Fahim is viewed as a potential rival to Karzai, a Pashtun. The Taliban were dominated by Pashtuns, who make up Afghanistan's largest group with over 40 percent of the population.

Fahim and his allies control the defense and foreign ministries and the state intelligence service. Karzai has accused Fahim of delaying a plan to disarm Afghanistan's estimated 100,000 gunmen by refusing to share power with ethnic Pashtuns and members of other ethnic groups.

Two Pashtun-led parties have recently gained prominence, though their long-term impact is unclear.

Supporters of former King Mohammad Zahir Shah formed the National Unity Movement earlier this month, calling for a restoration of the monarchy.

The announcement provoked "fear among the Northern Alliance,'' says a longtime Afghan political activist who asked not to be named. "The king is Pashtun and [the party] has strong potential among Pashtuns. It could unify them, bind them together.'' Mr. Shah, who was deposed in a coup in 1973, isn't part of the movement.

The independent governor of Afghanistan's central bank, Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, a Pashtun, brought attention to his small, nationalist Afghan Millat party last month when the group led a the large anti-Pakistan protest through Kabul.

Members of the crowd, angry over border incursions by Pakistan's Army and comments about Karzai by Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, split off and sacked Pakistan's embassy. Karzai was forced to apologize, but bashing Pakistan, which nurtured and supported the Taliban, is a popular stance in much of Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, analysts fear that Taliban fighters are finding supporters among some Pashtuns who do not feel represented in the new Afghanistan. Attacks by the regrouping militia and suspected Al Qaeda fighters have escalated, especially in southern and eastern Afghanistan, claiming the lives of at least 65 combatants and civilians last week.

The growth of new parties, particularly those without powerful patrons, is stunted by the lack of a legal framework in which to organize and raise money.

Afghanistan has yet to legalize political parties. A draft law on the subject seeks to limit participation to large Kabul-based parties whose leaders have not spent significant time outside the country. These requirements favor Fahim's Nahzat-e Mille to the detriment of other parties whose leaders have spent time in exile.

The draft law would also give the Afghan justice department wide latitude to dissolve parties.

But for many activists, physical peril takes precedence over legal peril. A dozen political organizers said in interviews they had been threatened, placed under surveillance, or assaulted by government forces since the Taliban fell.

'I was lucky'

On May 18, after months of threats, newspaper editor Fazal ur-Rahman Orya was forced from his car and assaulted for articles critical of Northern Alliance commanders by police, soldiers, and men he believed were part of the intelligence service.

Orya was saved when a crowd of onlookers forced the attackers to leave. "I was lucky,'' he says in an interview. "I don't know what would have happened if the street had been empty.''

One longtime Western observer of Afghan politics, who asked not to be named, says the current wave of political intimidation "is significantly less than has been seen in previous transitions,'' adding that the dominant armed factions "have generally been on good behavior. However, when they do decide to strike, there is no effective protection or 'due process.'''

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