Afghanistan's intelligence agency arrested a prominent Afghan journalist and opposition political adviser this weekend, raising questions about media and political freedom in the country ahead of expected elections and the NATO draw down in 2014.
The National Directorate of Security (NDS) arrested and interrogated Hussain Yasa on suspicion of espionage for Pakistan, an allegation Dr. Yasa denies. He was taken in custody shortly after meeting politicians to discuss an election reform scheme.
The arrest of Yasa comes at a time when the Karzai administration is proposing changes to a mass media law that would restrict the ability of the news media to discuss issues of national security and religion. Afghanistan is entering a sensitive political season, with maneuvering among power players to shape the upcoming elections that will determine who will lead Afghanistan after most NATO troops depart. The past record of Afghan security agencies, including the NDS, of staying professional and above the political fray is not encouraging.
Candace Rondeaux, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst based in Kabul, says that the upcoming 2014 presidential elections carry the risk that multiple actors -- and not just the Karzai administration -- could use different parts of the security agencies against each other.
“There is a risk that as political competition heats up ahead of the 2014 presidential elections state resources could be used to silence rivals and critics,” Ms. Rondeaux writes in an email. “This need not be solely a Karzai run and owned enterprise; there are a number of powerful political players who are well positioned to exert their control over the parts of the security services to further their own political ambitions.”
The NDS admits to arresting, releasing, and rearresting Yasa this weekend because of what it regards as suspicious activity, including frequent visits to the Pakistani embassy.
“Dr. Hussain Yasa has been arrested and held for questioning by the NDS for his repeatedly going to and visiting the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul, and especially the intelligence officer of the Pakistan Embassy,” says Lutfullah Mashal, spokesman for the NDS.
Yasa, however, maintains that he was simply participating in legitimate politics, attending a meeting of the National Front of Afghanistan at a recent meeting in Kabul.
Yasa was held for 27 hours, and then released on bail because of his need for diabetic treatment. On Tuesday, however, he was rearrested, Mr. Mashal said, and the NDS intends to hand him over to the Attorney General’s office for prosecution on likely charges of espionage.
'A proud Afghan'
While President Hamid Karzai is restricted by the Afghan Constitution from seeking a third term in office in 2014, critics of his administration worry that his control over security agencies such as the NDS will give him power to restrict the activities of his rivals, including some of the warlords and political leaders that form the National Front of Afghanistan.
One of those National Front leaders, Mohammad Mohaqiq, alleges in a statement this weekend, that Yasa was targeted not because of his visits to the Pakistani embassy, nor because of his possession of dual citizenship, but rather because he is a member of the Hazara ethnic group, and thus hostile to Karzai’s ethnic Pashtuns.
“A proud Afghan and an honest Hazara community member, Yasa has been known to me for the past 20 years,” said Mr. Mohaqiq, in a statement. “I know many ministers and advisors who have the citizenship of Pakistan, the US, Canada and other countries. This dual nationality is a pride for them. Why is it a sin in Yasa case?”
Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, says it is giving the Karzai government too much credit to say that it is “misusing the security institutions.”
“That suggests internal coherence and a systematic persecution of rivals or critics, which we (AAN) do not see,” Mr. Ruttig writes in an email. The security, judiciary, and civil institutions are still unstable, and run by people with personal or factional loyalties, and often with little regard for the rule of law, he says.
“There are laws, often relatively good ones, but they are not implemented, and those with power can afford to ignore them, put themselves above them. This gives them the room to carry out personal or political vendettas, and if you are the target of one, there is no trustworthy institution you can take recourse to.”
Ms. Rondeaux says Afghan elections have had a history of foul play.
“Given recent experience during the 2009 and 2010 polls, we can and should anticipate that targeted assassinations, kidnappings and even false arrests will be only a few of the tools employed by political players seeking gain an edge in the race for the presidency in Afghanistan,” she says.
Speaking for the NDS, Mr. Mashal denies that Yasa has been targeted because of his media activities or his connections with top leaders of the National Front of Afghanistan, who are likely rivals for President Karzai’s successor in upcoming 2014 elections. “The NDS respects all political parties, and we have no problem with Dr. Yasa’s political activities. We have no problem with his media activities. We have not received any direction from the palace or other political parties. This is only related to his activities with the Pakistani embassy.”
(Full disclosure: Lutfullah Mashal once worked for The Christian Science Monitor as an interpreter, before joining the Afghan government as a spokesman.)