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Afghanistan: Constitutional Commission Chairman Presents Karzai With Long-Delayed Draft Constitution

The long-awaited draft constitution for post-Taliban Afghanistan was official unveiled in Kabul today after a two-month delay reportedly caused by political wrangling.

Prague, 3 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- At a formal ceremony in Kabul today, the chairman of Afghanistan's Constitutional Commission, Nematullah Shahrani, handed copies of the draft document to Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, former Afghan King Mohammad Zahir Shah and the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi.

"Praise be to God that we offer today, in the presence of all of you, the national document of the Afghan people, which is the draft constitution of the Islamic Transitional Administration of Afghanistan," Shahrani said. Publication of the draft constitution is considered a key step toward defining a political system and the role of Islam in the country.

Under the internationally backed Bonn process on post-Taliban reforms, the draft constitution is to be debated and voted on next month by a 500-member Constitutional Loya Jirga. Approval of the document by the Loya Jirga is needed to create the legal framework for democratic elections tentatively scheduled for June.

But UN officials and nongovernmental organizations have warned that those elections could be threatened by clashes between the militias of factional warlords, as well as by the resurgence of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

Among those to issue such a warning is Germany's UN ambassador, Gunter Pleuger. He arrived in Kabul yesterday as part of a UN Security Council delegation that is investigating the implementation of the two-year-old Bonn Accords.

"The biggest problem is security. Without security, it won't be possible to prepare the elections so that they can take place in June. And without security, of course, political and economic reconstruction is difficult. Therefore, our biggest concern is the implementation of security in order to put the Bonn process into place," Pleuger said.

A variety of divisive issues emerged recently over the draft, including how power will be split among the branches of government, the role of former Afghan King Zahir Shah, and the role that Islam will play within Afghanistan's legal system.

Correspondents and political analysts say these issues sparked serious behind-the-scenes negotiations during the last two months. Publicly, Afghan officials blamed "technical issues" for repeated delays in releasing the draft document.

Constitutional Commission member Shukrya Barikzai said the draft outlines a strong role for the Afghan president and a two-chambered legislature. She said it calls for the president to be directly elected by the Afghan people rather than face a vote in parliament. The president also would have the power to dissolve and appoint the cabinet "with consultation from parliament."

The draft also says the president will nominate half of the members of the upper house of parliament -- known as the Meshrano Jirga, or House of Elders. The lower chamber of parliament will be called the Wolesi Jirga, or House of the People.

Significantly, Barikzai said the draft does not envision a post of prime minister. That development follows a preliminary draft leaked to the press in September, which had suggested power would be shared between a prime minister and a president.

Today's draft also recognizes the importance of Islam in Afghan society but stops short of introducing Islamic law, or Shariah, as the basis of criminal law.

While former King Zahir Shah has not been given any administrative powers under the draft document, he is recognized as the "Father of Afghanistan."

At today's ceremony, Zahir Shah stressed the importance of national unity and a society that is free from oppression and violence. "I hope that this constitution guides the people of Afghanistan toward prosperity and happiness," he said. "I wish that this constitution should be based on Islamic laws and democracy, and I ask God for prosperity for the people of Afghanistan forever."

However, the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch is warning that security concerns could undermine the legitimacy of the Constitutional Loya Jirga that is due to approve the final version of the constitution. The process of selecting the Constitutional Loya Jirga began last month in regional centers around the country. Representatives of last year's Emergency Loya Jirga have been meeting to decide who the 500 delegates will be for next month's gathering.

John Sifton, a researcher on Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL recently that Loya Jirga candidates who want to enshrine human rights in the constitution are being threatened by warlords and their militia fighters. "That does not allow an open debate," he said. "That just allows one side -- the side with the guns, the side with the power -- to write the constitution. Literally."

Human Rights Watch conducted dozens of interviews last month to document cases in which regional military commanders and militia fighters allegedly have issued death threats against Loya Jirga candidates and regional representatives.