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Afghan Human-Rights Campaigner Answers Her Critics

Sima Samar
A recently awarded Afghan human rights campaigner has found herself on the defensive as critics have questioned her organization's failure to publish its report on grave human rights violations committed in Afghanistan over the past three decades.

Last week, Sima Samar was named one of four recipients of this year's Right Livelihood Award, dubbed by some as "the alternative Nobel." The prize honors her work as a human rights campaigner toward improving the lives of others, and as a doctor caring for refugee women.

But that honor has been questioned by some, who note that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has failed to answer calls to make public the results of its investigation into past rights violations. The research conducted by AIHRC, whose senior staff is appointed by the government, reportedly implicates many powerful government leaders and politicians in being involved in atrocities committed since the 1978 communist coup.

In a September 30 interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Samar said the AIHRC has much to be proud of in promoting and defending human rights in Afghanistan, and denied that there is any nefarious maneuvering related to the report.

Many powerful former militia commanders and warlords, some of whom are now senior government leaders and lawmakers, have slammed leaked excerpts from "Conflict Mapping in Afghanistan Since 1978."

Considering that the report accuses some 500 powerful leaders of abuses, observers have suggested that the AIHRC has been pressured not to publish the report.

Such critics, Samar says, have little understanding of the AIHRC's work.

"We are neither afraid nor under pressure. People are not familiar with the work of the commission, that is why they want us to put the perpetrators [of past crimes] on trial. We are not the police, the prosecutor, or the judges, and we do not have any of their powers," Samar says.

'No Political Will'

Abdul Sattar Sadat, a lawyer based in Kabul, says that time is running out for the AIHRC to release the report and allow justice to be served.

"Some of the leaders who people know well and whose names possibly figure in this report are being honored as national heroes. Universities are being named after others and their statues are being carved. But what we really need now is to clear up our past," Sadat says.

Samar says great political will is needed for past atrocities to be addressed, and that such decisions can only be made by the Afghan government and the international community backing it.

She says that, realistically, much consensus-building would have to take place within the Afghan government for it to move forward on this issue.

"Our government has three parts: the parliament, the judiciary, and the executive. Right now I do not see any political will among them to implement justice. They need to realize that justice is needed in Afghanistan and it must be served," Samar says.

Samar, 54, will share the prize of nearly $200,000 with the three other winners of this year's Right Livelihood Award, presented by the eponymous Swedish charity.

The prize jury cited "her longstanding and courageous dedication to human rights, especially the rights of women, in one of the most complex and dangerous regions of the world."

A medical doctor by training, Samar fled to Pakistan in 1984 when her husband disappeared following his arrest by Afghanistan's communist regime. In 1989, Samar established the Shuhada Organization in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta to provide health care to refugee Afghan women and girls and to train medical staff.

After the fall of the Taliban regime, Samar returned to Afghanistan in 2001. She became the country's first minister of women's affairs.

Only six months later she had to resign after criticizing Shari'a law during a media interview.

She has led the AIHRC since 2002. From 2005 to 2009 she was also the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Sudan.

Written by Abubakar Siddique in Prague, based on reporting by RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Hamida Osman and Hameed Mohmand.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also the author of the weekly Gandhara Briefing newsletter, which features some of best reporting and analysis on Afghanistan and Pakistan.