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Afghanistan: HRW Representative Cites Fear Of Warlords, Other Election Concerns

Electoral official hanging sanctioned campaign posters ahead of this month's vote Kabul, 12 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission today disqualified 28 more candidates from competing in Afghanistan’s national and provincial parliamentary elections, due to take place on 18 September. The new disqualifications bring to 45 the number of candidates barred from the UN-backed vote. Rights groups have expressed concern that figures implicated in major rights abuses are being allowed to stand in the elections. Among those rights groups is Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has been monitoring the election campaign for the past two months in provinces across the country. RFE/RL spoke with Sam Zia Zarifi -- the leading researcher in Afghanistan for HRW -- about candidate disqualifications and other election issues. The New York-based nongovernmental organization will release a report on the findings of its investigators on 15 September.

RFE/RL: After a two-month observation mission in most of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, what is Human Rights Watch’s overall assessment of the election campaign?

Zarifi: Human Rights Watch’s assessment of the campaign period, not the election [voting] period itself, is that the country has to be looked at essentially in two separate processes. In the south, the insurgency has really impeded the election process. Things are significantly worse than they were last year for the presidential election [in October 2004]. In other parts of the country, there is real grounds for happiness because there haven’t been major outbreaks of factional violence. Most disputes seem to have been channeled into politics. At the same time, there is a sense of disappointment and frustration among voters because there are a number of militia commanders who are either directly candidates or are pushing proxy candidates.

RFE/RL: A year ago, when a majority of Afghans voted for Hamid Karzai to be their president, Human Rights Watch was warning that parliamentary elections had a greater propensity for direct intimidation by militia commanders trying to become members of parliament in order to legitimize their powers. Now that the campaign season is nearly finished, have those fears of direct intimidation materialized?

Zarifi: Human Rights Watch, like other monitoring organizations, hasn’t come across really much evidence of systematic violence. That’s what we mean by direct intimidation. We haven’t seen very many cases of people bringing out guns and tanks and ordering villages to vote a certain way. What we have seen is that the memory of atrocities in Afghanistan is still very fresh. And very little has been done to have any sense of accountability [for crimes against humanity that were committed during the last 25 years].

RFE/RL: Has Human Rights Watch found any evidence suggesting that indirect intimidation might influence the outcome of [the 18 September] vote? If so, what are some of the ways that voters are being indirectly intimidated?

Zarifi: Indirect intimidation is having your local commander now standing for parliament. It’s true that his guns may be not visible now. Or less visible than they were before. But we’ve heard probably the same threat in many different places in Afghanistan – where commanders say: ‘We know where you are. We expect a certain number of votes. And remember, we’re going to be here when the international community is gone.
"We haven’t seen very many cases of people bringing out guns and tanks and ordering villages to vote a certain way. What we have seen is that the memory of atrocities in Afghanistan is still very fresh. And very little has been done to have any sense of accountability [for crimes against humanity that were committed during the last 25 years]."

RFE/RL: There have been complaints by Afghan voters against parliamentary candidates who are alleged to have committed crimes against humanity. But the Election Complaints Commission that has the power to remove such candidates from the ballot says there must be clear and convincing evidence that such allegations are true before it will take action. What is your reaction to this position?

Zarifi: There hasn’t been an independent judiciary in Afghanistan for 25 years -- and even before that. The election commission says: ‘We can’t sideline candidates unless in the case that there is a conviction of crimes against humanity against them. Well, there’s not a single person in Afghanistan with a conviction like that. There are about 5,800 candidates. There were probably complaints lodged about over 500 of them. And only some very minor figures were struck from the list.

RFE/RL: Does the research of Human Rights Watch suggest that parliamentary election victories are likely for warlords who are candidates and who employ indirect intimidation against voters in their area?

Zarifi: I talked to one elderly gentlemen, a farmer in Samangan Province, who put it really succinctly. He said: ‘We want the government to keep these commanders out of our lives. We don’t want these commanders to be in parliament. But if the government isn’t willing to challenge them, how can they ask us – who live with them every day – to vote against them. Why do they put the burden on us?’

RFE/RL: Can you be specific about the names of candidates about whom voters have expressed concerns?

Zarifi: Some very prominent people like [radical Islamist] Abdul Rasul Sayyaf are running. He is a commander [for] whom there is very strong evidence about his involvement in human rights abuses throughout the civil war in Afghanistan. There are people from the Taliban that are running -- like Ahmad Rocketi, who was a commander who cooperated with the Taliban. And his past record on atrocities is quite well known. There are people from the communist era running. There are a couple of generals from the communist era running who have very questionable pasts. So I think the electoral commission could have been a little more forward-leaning in keeping the lists clean.

RFE/RL: Are you suggesting that the procedures for eliminating candidates with questionable pasts from the ballot needs to be revised? What other system might be more effective in calming the fears of voters who worry about having a warlord for a parliamentary representative?

Zarifi: It’s not just a question of a judicial finding. The Afghan Human Rights Commission had suggested that there be an educational minimum at least [to be eligible as a candidate for parliament]. And this was a very modest standard of 10th grade, for instance. Having just that standard would have sidelined quite a number of the local militia commanders. Unfortunately, that requirement wasn’t even taken up. And as a result, there is really a sense that this is another opportunity lost -- that the Afghan people are, again, ahead of their own government.

[For more on these elections, see RFE/RL's Afghanistan Votes website.]