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Afghanistan: Human Rights Watch Documents Afghan Police, Military Abuses

Human Rights Watch has issued a report documenting what it says are widespread abuses being committed by Afghanistan's police, military, and intelligence officials. The alleged perpetrators are backed by factional leaders who came to power following the United Stated-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. The report blames Washington for encouraging the leaders' rise to power and doing little to curb their abuses.

Prague, 29 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Beatings, imprisonment, torture, rape. According to a new report by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), these are the punishments favored by Afghanistan's warlords and factional leaders for anyone who dares to challenge their power.

As the country prepares for a loya jirga this autumn to approve a new constitution, with elections due to follow in the summer of 2004, HRW says there is still a "window of opportunity" to consolidate democracy in Afghanistan.

But the independent watchdog warns that unless immediate steps are taken to undermine the power of warlords -- who have carved up the country into fiefdoms and are growing stronger through violence and intimidation -- democracy stands little chance in Afghanistan.

The 101-page report focuses on the situation in southeast Afghanistan, the country's most-populous region. But HRW says the conditions it describes are endemic throughout the country. The report charges that violence is regularly perpetrated against local journalists, students, political activists, and business people, as well as ordinary citizens. Such violence is instigated both by warlords who control their own militias and by factional leaders represented in the central government.

Even more notable, HRW says, is the fact that much of the support for these local leaders comes from the U.S. government, as well as Pakistani and Iranian government agencies. Those countries, it says, "have done much to entrench the warlords responsible for the worst abuses."

Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Vanessa Saenen spoke to RFE/RL by phone from Brussels. She says Washington's emphasis on pursuing its war on terror has been directly responsible for strengthening warlords and undermining the building of democratic institutions in Afghanistan.

"We feel that the emphasis on the war on terror and choosing to fight with the warlords as their allies means that democracy in Afghanistan has been forgotten and been put in real danger at the moment because they [the United States] are now strengthening people, i.e. the warlords, who are committing atrocious abuses all over Afghanistan," she said.

Although many of these warlords helped to topple Afghanistan's Taliban regime in 2001, HRW believes that unless their ever-increasing powers are curbed Afghanistan's people stand little chance of being able to vote freely in next summer's elections, which are meant to initiate a country-wide democratic administration.

"It's necessary to actually sideline and pressure these abusive leaders as soon as possible because the longer they stay in power the more difficult it will be to get rid of them. I don't think it's a matter of 'owing them' for their past services in fighting Al-Qaeda and suspects in the war against terror. On the contrary, I think it's still possible [to curb them] and it should be done as soon as possible," she said.

John Sifton, HRW's main Afghanistan researcher, returned from the country last week. He tells RFE/RL from New York that in many regions military commanders control all the levers of power:

"As it stands now, a local military commander in Jalalabad, for instance, doesn't just control the army -- he controls everything. He controls the electricity department, the trash department -- every walk of government life is controlled by these military strongmen."

What, then, are some of the abuses documented by Human Rights Watch? There are cases of frightening intimidation: in March of this year, for example, the editor of a Kabul newspaper who published an unflattering cartoon of Defense Minister Qasim Fahim was visited by armed men who threatened to empty 30 bullets into his chest.

There are also cases of outright torture and killings. Several independent delegates to the 2002 Loya Jirga interviewed by HRW were threatened or imprisoned after criticizing military commanders or government officials present at the meeting -- or could name colleagues who had disappeared after doing the same. One activist interviewed by the watchdog described his time in detention where he was kept in a filthy cell with 200 other inmates and witnessed his fellow prisoners being tortured by guards.

Based on the testimony of prisoners, Human Rights Watch says the notorious Sadarad facility, once used as an interrogation center in the 1980s by the Soviet-trained KHAD secret police, is now back in operation.

In an interview with RFE/RL last week, the head of Afghanistan's prison system, General Salam Khan Bakshi, acknowledged the spartan conditions in the country's detention facilities. But he denied all allegations of torture.

"Torture is nonexistent in our prisons," he said. "What some people say is just propaganda against our system. There is no torture at all. Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch should come here and have a look at our prisons. We would show them any prison in any province they choose: in Mazar or Kandahar, in Jalalabad or Herat. We could take them to any Afghan province they would like to check. No one -- the police or the office of the prosecutor -- tortures prisoners. I do admit that living conditions in prisons are not always acceptable. But torture does not exist."

Nevertheless, HRW says the campaign of intimidation it documents has led to what it describes as "a climate of pervasive fear," especially outside Kabul, among journalists and once politically active civic leaders, who now choose to exercise self-censorship.

In addition to local politicians and journalists, HRW says freedom of speech and movement for many ordinary citizens is also declining. The group says that although every woman and girl its researchers interviewed in southeast Afghanistan said life was now better than under the Taliban, many women noted that their newfound freedoms existed mostly in theory.

Many women and girls said that although they now had the right to leave their houses to pursue education or employment, a significant percentage feared venturing out without a burqa and the company of a close male relative, due to increased intimidation, attacks, and rapes. In Jalalabad and Laghman provinces, HRW notes that certain local government officials have even threatened to beat or kill women who do not wear the burqa.

How can the situation in Afghanistan be remedied and democracy boosted ahead of elections? Among the steps HRW recommends are the broadening of the geographic and legal mandate of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has requested. Deploying ISAF soldiers in cities and towns outside of Kabul would go a long way towards helping the volatile security and human rights situation, says Saenen.

"We think they should be put there [outside of Kabul] and also get a broader mandate, including taking care of disarmament, human-rights protections. This is necessary. We also feel that the United Nations can really help to do this in the future as well, for instance by putting more human rights people on the ground, so victims actually do have the possibility to seek redress and to find protection, and also for the UN to have a better idea of exactly what is happening on the ground."

Secondly, military commanders must be brought back to the barracks and out of political life. John Sifton says: "If the United States and its coalition partners decide that they need to use these military commanders because they need to continue fighting the Taliban, because they need to continue the peace in Afghanistan and avoid civil war, then they're going to do it and our report isn't going to stop them. But what we're calling for is for them to at least pressure these people not to dominate political life. If they're going to have these people working side-by-side with the United States in the military battlefield, then these people should be barracked and should not be in the governor's mansion and in the Interior Ministry's offices."

Sifton says former military commanders who are now part of the central government, such as Defense Minister Fahim, must also be pressured to stop using violence to further their political ends.

"In the case of Defense Minister Fahim in particular, the evidence [of violence and coercion] is overwhelming," Sifton said. "It would be very difficult to [make up] stories in which his men -- saying they were acting on his behalf -- visited so many people over such a long period of time, who themselves all had the same stories [of abuse and intimidation]."

RFE/RL repeatedly attempted to contact Afghanistan's Interior and Defense ministries in Kabul for their reaction to the Human Rights Watch report, but no one was available to comment.