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Afghanistan: Loya Jirga Convenes To Debate Draft Constitution Amid Tight Security

Two years after the fall of the Taliban regime, 500 delegates from across Afghanistan are gathering in Kabul to attend a Constitutional Loya Jirga that will decide the form of an elected Afghan government. The Loya Jirga is due to open on 14 December under tight security with speeches by Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and former King Mohammad Zahir Shah. The meeting has twice been postponed because of the difficulties delegates from remote regions have faced in reaching the capital.

Prague, 12 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The day after tomorrow, some 500 delegates representing all 32 provinces of Afghanistan -- as well as the country's ethnic groups, minorities, and refugees -- are due to begin debating a draft constitution unveiled last month.

Ratification of the country's sixth written constitution will create the framework for Afghanistan's first direct presidential elections, scheduled for June.

Tom Muller is deputy communications manager for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent research organization based in Kabul. Muller says the Constitutional Loya Jirga will play a decisive role in the country's future.

"The Loya Jirga is really a milestone along the political process that was mapped out at the Bonn meeting that was held in December 2001," he said. "The Loya Jirga is an essential part of establishing Afghanistan's political future as it will outline the political course for elections to be held next year. It will define the system of government and the nature of the elections that will be held next year."

The main issues that will be debated include the delicate issue of the role of Islam in the new constitution, the balance of power, and the role of women. Security is tight for the assembly. Militants and supporters of the ousted Taliban regime have threatened to disrupt the proceedings.

The Afghan Interior Ministry announced earlier this week that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as well as Afghan security officers, will ensure the security of the Loya Jirga participants.

Ghulam Bahawodin, a Loya Jirga representative from Herat, said today in Kabul that delegates will not let threats of attacks deter them from approving a new constitution.

"Foreign enemies of Afghanistan don't want peace in Afghanistan. They support unrest and instability. We have no fear, not even a bit. God willing, the Loya Jirga will proceed in peace and the constitution will be approved with calm."

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai is appealing to the delegates for a quick agreement to stabilize the country. He expressed hope that the Constitutional Loya Jirga can be concluded in a week to 10 days.

"My wish is that in this Loya Jirga, the representatives of the people of Afghanistan will work according to the country's national interest for the national unity of and also for establishing a consolidated national governing regime and stable conditions in the country."

The draft constitution envisages a bicameral legislature with a powerful president. Some observers say it is vital for the leader of Afghanistan to have enough power to deal with the warlords and factional commanders who are in control of most of the provinces. Some critics warn, however, that giving too much power to the president could lead to a form of dictatorship.

Many warlords and former mujahedin commanders who fought against the Soviet occupation favor a parliamentary system with a president and prime minister who would share power. Karzai has said he will not put himself forward as a candidate if such a system is endorsed by the assembly.

Observers predict a difficult debate over the issue of power division.

Muller says, "There seems to be strong support from President Karzai for a presidential system, while a number of the mujahedin parties and also delegates from other provinces are really pushing for a parliamentary system to ensure a balance of power between the president and the prime minister. And so at this stage, we really can't tell what is the likely outcome of the debate that will take place at the Constitutional Loya Jirga. I assume it will be a vigorous debate and a debate that sees people put forward strong positions."

The draft constitution has been criticized by human rights groups, who say it fails to adequately protect the rights of Afghanistan's women and religious minorities.

Carl Soderberg is the representative in Afghanistan for Amnesty International. He tells RFE/RL that the issue of women's rights remains the group's main concern ahead of the Loya Jirga. He says the language in the current draft does not provide for the specific protection of women's rights.

"Right now in the draft, the word 'citizen' is used without specifying that the term includes men, women and children. This means, for example, that the right not to be discriminated against for women is as yet not specified in the constitution, and this we think is extremely important in order to ensure that women are made visible in this process."

Under the hard-line Taliban regime, women were barred from public life and denied access to education. Since the ousting of the Taliban, women are back in schools and offices, but they still face violence and discrimination.

About 100 of the delegates participating in the Loya Jirga are women, but Soderberg predicts they will face strong opposition in voicing their demands for equal rights.

"There are many prominent women activists who have been chosen. At the same time, there are very strong conservative voices amongst the other delegates. And the question will be whether the women are given the proper opportunity to give voice to their concerns."

Some civil society and student groups also criticize the draft constitution for not ensuring the right to higher education. "Social, economic, and political rights are also very important issues that the constitutional Loya Jirga will be discussing," Muller says. "At the moment, there is no free higher education in the constitution. There is also no clearly defined decent wages, and so social and economic clauses within the constitution will also be debated."

The main sessions of the Loya Jirga are going to be held in a large tent on the grounds of the city's Polytechnic Institute, on the northwestern outskirts of Kabul. The delegates will be split into 10 groups of 50, which will discuss the constitution in separate, smaller tents.

Today, a Kabul representative to the Loya Jirga, Hafiz Mansoor, said he disapproves of these arrangements: "In our opinion, this is not going to be a positive step unless the delegates ask for it. We prefer that all the delegates have discussions and exchange views in one place."

Many observers predict the divisive issues to be discussed will lead to an extension of the Loya Jirga beyond the 10 days allocated by the Afghan Transitional Administration. Karzai has noted that each extra day will cost the government $50,000.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.