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Afghanistan: Human Rights Watch Accuses Police Of Trying To Cover Up Kabul Shootings

The U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch today accused police from Afghanistan's Interior Ministry of intimidating witnesses who saw police open fire on a crowd of Kabul University student demonstrators. At least two students were killed in the 11 November incident.

Kabul, 14 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch today accused police from the Afghan Interior Ministry of beating and threatening witnesses who saw at least two Kabul University students shot dead by rank-and-file ministry troops during student protests on 11 November.

Vanessa Saenen, a spokeswoman in Brussels for Human Rights Watch, described the allegations and evidence that has been gathered by her nongovernmental organization. "Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses who said that police beat students in a university dormitory and threatened injured students at the hospital. In one case, police beat and slapped a student in his hospital bed after he had spoken with other students and an investigator from the Afghan Human Rights Commission. The police warned him not to complain about police behavior or the government to anyone else," Saenen said.

RFE/RL's correspondent in Kabul visited the Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital today and spoke with four of the students who were injured when police opened fire on the demonstration, which was calling for improved living conditions at Kabul University.

While none of the students interviewed had any visible signs of being beaten, our correspondent said they all appeared intimidated and refused to discuss any details about the shootings. Among them was Ajmal, a 20-year-old medical student from Khost Province who said he would only talk about his general health. "As we were protesting, we were hit by bullets, and then the police transferred us to the hospital -- at first to the Jamhuryat Hospital and then, after receiving first aid, to the 400-bed military hospital. But since military patients are being treated there, and we were civil[ian] patients, [we] were shifted to Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital. [We were treated] well inside the hospital, but [as for what happened] outside, I can't say anything," Ajmal said.

When asked why he did not want to comment on the protests or the actions of the police, Ajmal told RFE/RL, "You know better than us."

The three other injured students -- 23-year-old Mohammad Shahpoor and 21-year-old Wahdatullah, both from Wardak Province, and 21-year-old Firooz from Khost Province -- also declined to comment.

Sima Samar, the head of the Afghan Human Rights Commission, told RFE/RL today that some students injured by police gunfire had, indeed, been beaten after the incident.

But she said she could not confirm whether any beatings had taken place at the hospital after interviews by investigators from her commission.

Samar also said that her commission could confirm that at least two students were killed in the protests. She said it was not immediately possible to confirm claims by some witnesses that up to six students had been killed.

Afghanistan's Interior Ministry has said, so far, that two students were killed. But Human Rights Watch said today that it has confirmed at least three students were shot dead and 20 injured when police fired directly into the crowd of some 250 demonstrators.

Samar said her commission wants to coordinate its efforts with a special team created by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to investigate the shootings.

But she told RFE/RL that, so far, the attempt to coordinate the investigations has been rebuffed. She said it appears that the special team of investigators does not want her commission to participate in the probe.

Samar also said members of the Afghan Human Rights Commission had requested interviews with the injured students on 12 November, the day after the shootings. But she said that while the Transitional Authority cabinet was agreeable at first, in the end it asked them to wait. "[The cabinet] was very helpful to give us permission to see the students. We were the first [to ask] -- before the UN, before anybody. And even the first day [after the shootings], they agreed to let us go and see the students. But again, it was a lot of paperwork, and they asked us if we could wait. We did wait. So finally we saw the students yesterday," Samar said.

Samar also said that the explanation given by the Interior Ministry troops for their actions -- to protect public property -- was "not acceptable."

A statement from the Afghan Human Rights Commission today called the shootings "deplorable" and the reactions of the Interior Ministry police "unjust." The statement calls for legal steps to be taken against those responsible.

The Afghan Interior Ministry is headed by Taj Mohammad Wardak, an ethnic Pashtun with U.S. citizenship who was named by Karzai as a replacement for the interim interior minister, Yunis Qanuni.

But the rank and file of the ministry remains dominated by ethnic Tajik troops from the Panjshir Valley who are part of Qanuni's Jamiat-i-Islami faction.

That former Northern Alliance faction fought as an ally of the United States against the Taliban regime and has controlled key ministries since the Taliban fled Kabul.

Steve Crawshaw, the director of the London office for Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL that the violence seen in Kabul this week is the latest in a pattern of factional violence that threatens stability across the country. "It is, to put it mildly, a worrying sign. What we have here is a growing sense of anarchy and a lack of accountability [on the part of the Interior Ministry police]. We've already seen it very much across the country. And Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented it in different parts of the country -- most recently, from the west, from Herat, and what [Herat Province Governor] Ismail Khan is doing there. But even in Kabul, we can see that people who fundamentally have no interest in stability and democracy are gaining the upper hand [through this] kind of lawlessness and this violent imposition of their own will," Crawshaw said.

Crawshaw said the investigation into the university shootings will be a vital test for the Afghan Human Rights Commission, which will reveal whether it has the independence and freedom to probe alleged human rights abuses by various factions whose leaders are either in the Transitional Authority cabinet themselves or who have representatives in the central government.

Samar agreed that the case is a watershed moment for her commission. "We [will] try our best. And we already have asked the students to keep their patience. They should know the situation of the country also. But it doesn't mean the security forces should start shooting at the students," Samar said.

The United Nations today also condemned the handling of the demonstration by the police. UN spokesman Manoel e Almeida da Silva said the shootings cannot be justified on grounds of either self-defense or public safety.

The UN also announced today that it is investigating claims of police intimidation in northern Afghanistan against potential witnesses of war crimes allegedly committed by troops of the ethnic Uzbek factional commander General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

(RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz contributed to this report from Prague.)

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    Grant Podelco

    Grant Podelco is the editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. He first joined RFE/RL in Prague in 1995 as a senior correspondent after working for many years as a writer and editor for daily newspapers in New York, Oregon, and Texas. He reported from Afghanistan in November 2002 to mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban.