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Archive for February 2007

Reconciliation bill under watch: US official

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Lalit K. Jha

NEW YORK, Feb 24 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Refraining to come out with an open comment on the controversial reconciliation bill passed by the two houses of parliament, officials of the US administration say they are closely monitoring the situation.

“The United States supports and encourages full democratic debate, deliberations and peaceful expression of opinions on matters of critical importance to the future of Afghanistan,” said a State Department official on condition of anonymity.

Speaking to Pajhwok Afghan News, the official said the administration continued to watch the situation closely. “All elements of this transitional justice plan are important,” he noted.

At the same time, he said the US would prefer to adopt a policy of wait and watch for the time being. It was the reflection of the democratic system and that it was gaining ground in this war-ravaged country, he added.

The State Department official, however, indicated the administration’s preference pointing out that they “support” the Action Plan on Peace, Reconciliation and Justice, which is “against” amnesty for war crimes, crimes against humanity or violations of human rights.

Adopted in December 2005, the plan was launched by President Hamid Karzai in December 2006. The plan has five key actions: Acknowledgement of the suffering of the Afghan people; ensuring credible and accountable state institutions; truth-seeking and documentation; promotion of reconciliation and national unity; and establishment of effective and reasonable accountability mechanisms in order to ensure justice be done to all those accused of war crimes and rights violations.

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February 27, 2007 at 5:27 am

Posted in Human Rights

In the shadow of the warlords

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The Age (Australia)
Paul McGeough, Kabul
February 26, 2007

Australia and Britain look set to send more troops to fight the resurgent Taliban. But other villains are now wearing the cloak of legitimacy in Afghanistan.

A winter chill bit at hundreds as they trudged the rutted tracks of Afshar to remember just one atrocity in Afghanistan’s unending wars.

They came on foot, to scatter rose petals on a rocky mound that is a mass grave for more than 70 victims of just one day in the fighting that reduced Afghanistan to a wasteland over three decades.

They also came to stare down the warlords and to challenge President Hamid Karzai’s propensity to sit on the fence in a time of crisis.

Does he hold to demands by these powerful warlords and their militiamen that they be absolved of all their war crimes or does he back a push by some foreign governments and human rights groups for accountability in a genuine process of national reconciliation?

Mostly Shiite men and boys, those who came to remember Afshar, had the round, Asiatic faces of Afghanistan’s long-oppressed Hazara minority. But before visiting the mass grave, they gathered in a nearby mosque to mark this 14th anniversary of the massacre – under the watchful gaze of armed guards who took up positions on surrounding rooftops.

Old men, some with tears streaming down their faces, were guided to their places. In silence they sat cross-legged while the haunting falsetto chants issuing from a PA system reverberated off the rubble that once was their homes, shops and offices in the foothills of Kabul’s south-side.

Fourteen years on, the horror lingered. Most had been tortured or had seen relatives die as the mujahideen warlords of the early 1990s decided they would destroy this quarter of the city – rather than cede control.

The speakers rattled off numbing figures – somewhere between 800 and 1000 were killed in a single day; of the 1220 who were detained, just 150 were released – most only because their wealthier families could buy their freedom; hundreds of homes were looted and thousands of people were displaced when their houses were destroyed in the mindless shelling.

A prominent Kabul journalist, Mohammed Qazim Akhgar, railed against those who he described as “butchers”: “They made our blood run like water in the streets and they are still alive, but no one dares to arrest them because of their power.”

Ahmad Ali Khargar was as brief as he was blunt: “It was the blackest time for us. We have to know who did this to us and we have to know why our Government will not help us now – they treat us as if we are not Afghans.”

A man introduced simply as Colonel Azidullah urged the congregation to tell their stories: “You are the living witnesses – you know the history of the death and torture of our men and the rape of our women.

“Only 72 bodies are buried in our mass grave because we could not find the others in the rubble. Apart from having no money, the fear of uncovering the dead is one of the reasons why so few of our homes have been rebuilt. Who will be held responsible for this?”

Their stories were so overwhelming that they told them only in the baldest terms. Instead they asked a simple question – over and over. Why?

“Why us? Why did no one help us back then? Why does no one help us now? Why are those who brutalised us allowed to get away with their crimes?”

Their grief was all the more potent because in recent weeks they have watched as some of their tormenters have hijacked Afghanistan’s new Western-backed parliament in a bid to absolve themselves and their allies of any wrongdoing – driven apparently by their alarm at the fate of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who was hanged in December.

Last Tuesday, the upper house voted overwhelmingly – 50-16 – to endorse a bill passed in the lower house last month that gives immunity to all accused of atrocities in the Afghan wars – dressing it up as an act of national reconciliation.

Urging Afghans to respect and honour the warlords, the bill states: “All political parties and belligerent groups who fought each other during the past two decades… will not be pursued legally or judicially.”

Such is the fear today of the old mujahideen warlords and powerbrokers who have seamlessly taken control of the parliament and much of Afghanistan’s new government, that the simple act of attending last Friday’s memorial service was an act of courage.

Speakers who were brave enough to identify the killers of 1993 as the same mujahideen leaders did so only by omission – pointing out that they were not the Soviet-backed communists who oppressed them in the ’80s or the fundamentalist Taliban of the late-’90s.

President Karzai is in a bind. He has endorsed a report by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) that sets out a detailed national reconciliation plan and he has said that he cannot accept the amnesty bill passed by the parliament.

After Tuesday’s vote, a presidential spokesman said that the President would seek advice on the legality of the amnesty bid, but its backers claim that they can override a Karzai veto with a two-thirds majority vote in the parliament.

The president has publicly defended some of his most powerful advisers and functionaries who are among the accused and he has refused to release or to act on a damning United Nations report on alleged war crimes, which was handed to him almost two years ago.

When the New York-based Human Rights Watch named the suspected war criminals in a widely accepted report last year, Karzai dismissed it as “incorrect and regrettable”. He told reporters in December: “(Those accused) have played a positive role in ensuring peace, system-building and strengthening our national institutions in the last five years.”

Tom Koenigs, the UN’s special representative to Afghanistan, told reporters before Tuesday’s upper house vote: “One thing must be very clear, and it should be clear worldwide: amnesty for gross violations of human rights and for war crimes shouldn’t exist.”

There is a yearning in Afghans for a South-African-style truth and reconciliation process to somehow draw a line under the horror of the past. But there is neither truth nor much hope of reconciliation in the smokescreen bill rammed through the parliament by the warlords and their minions.

The AIHRC reconciliation plan – the cornerstone of which is acknowledgement of and accountability for wrongdoing – was devised after a survey of more than 6000 Afghans revealed that 90 per cent wanted all human rights violators removed from public office and that 40 per cent wanted to see them prosecuted.

As more mass graves are uncovered around the country – the most recent, in December, reportedly contains more than 2000 victims of the 1980s communist regime – human rights groups fear that the Afghan leader will succumb to pressure from the warlords before going along with international demands, particularly given Washington’s silence on the calls for accountability.

As he left Friday’s memorial service, the head of the AIHRC, Nadir Nadiry, told The Age: “You have just heard the voices of the victims. Granting the blanket amnesty demanded in the parliament would only promote impunity and a personal search by the victims for revenge. It is the victims who must decide who was responsible for their suffering – it is their right. We are still waiting for a proper statement by the President, but this amnesty bill endangers all that we have achieved so far.”

In Kabul and beyond there is rising anxiety about how the decisions taken by the governments here and in Washington will impact on the reconciliation issue and it’s implications for Afghanistan’s future stability.

Sam Zarifi , Human Rights Watch’s Asia research director, told The Age from New York before Tuesday’s vote: “I think that President Karzai would like to get rid of some of these people but he doesn’t have the backing of the US. Until the Americans come out and actively support a genuine process of reconciliation, he will not move against them.

“The indications are that the US is throwing its weight behind action against drug traffickers and is leaving this one alone.”

In Kabul, a Western analyst explained his fears: “This is the 800-pound gorilla in the room and it’s not going to go away – (the warlords) will keep trying to pass the amnesty bill into law.”

In the 1980s, the Russian occupation forces and their Afghan puppets destroyed the Afghan countryside; but in the 1990s, it was the Afghans themselves who destroyed Kabul.

Human Rights Watch’s authoritative 2005 report, Blood-Stained Hands, concludes: “Many Kabulis viewed the Afshar campaign as a milestone in the post-communist era, a moment when they (finally) realised the real ethnic tensions underlying the fighting in Kabul and the extent to which different mujahideen factions – who had fought the Soviet regime for so long – were now prepared to kill fellow Afghans.”

Human Rights Watch argues that many leaders implicated in the abuses now hold key posts in the Afghan defence and interior ministries – or act as presidential advisers. A slew of them won seats in the parliament and others continue to operate as warlords or regional strongmen, leaning on their proxies in official positions.

The abuses at Afshar and elsewhere in Kabul, according to Human Rights Watch’s research, saw whole sections of the capital reduced to rubble, tens of thousands of civilians killed and wounded, and at least half a million people displaced. And of the period since the US-led invasion, the watch group concludes: “For the past five years, the Afghan Government, the UN and the international community, led by the United States, have pursued a counter-productive policy of relying on war criminals, human rights abusers and drug-traffickers instead of prosecuting them – Karzai mistakenly tried to bring (them) under his umbrella, while the US worked with many as part of its ‘war on terror’.”

At Afshar, those who attended the memorial service queued to tell their stories to The Age.

A 38-year-old medical technician, Shukrullah Safdar Ali, called for public executions: “They are in Government and in the parliament now- they must be hanged and we must always remember.

“They took the wealthy as prisoners and they killed the poor. They made me carry the loot they took from my family’s home and then they made me carry ammunition supplies to the top of the mountain – so that they could fire the bullets and rockets back into my community. I think I saw 500 people die in the six months before I escaped – by jumping from a second-floor window.”

Despite his accusations of butchery, the journalist Mohammed Qazim Akhgar urged the mosque gathering to cease their annual commemoration of the dreadful days of 1993.

But today there is no sense that the people of Afshar are ready to move on – pain does not forget.

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February 27, 2007 at 5:27 am

Posted in Human Rights

Former Afghan warlords rally for amnesty

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By Mark Sappenfield
The Christian Science Monitor
February 26, 2007

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – In one corner of a soccer stadium that has seen both athletic contests and executions stands a poster some 20 feet tall of Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai. Perhaps appropriately, Feda Mohammad Mujahid has turned away from it.

The 25,000 Afghans crowded into this bare concrete oval hoist up different posters of stern-faced mujahideen commanders who first fought the Soviets, and then each other, before joining with America to oust the Taliban in 2001.

To Mr. Mujahid, wrapped in a white scarf against the winter chill, these are the heroes of Afghanistan’s “holy wars,” not war criminals. So he has come here to rail against Mr. Karzai and the tyranny of Western nations, which have opposed an Afghan bill that would grant the mujahideen amnesty for war crimes committed during the past 25 years.

“This is a mujahideen nation,” he says, as nearby loudspeakers crackle with speeches of defiance. “We want the law of Islam, and the government of mujahideen.”

Away from the teeming streets around the stadium, the attitudes of average Afghans take on a different air. Many express frustration that former military leaders who killed thousands and destroyed Kabul in a four-year civil war might never be brought to justice. Yet in a country still divided by tribes, tongues, and traditions, Friday’s rally sent a clear message – that even now, Afghanistan’s onetime warlords alone have the power to muster the masses.

In this rally, “you saw their continuing ability to mobilize people and to potentially influence politics,” says Paul Fishstein, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent analysis organization here.

Some see amnesty as political ploy

The bill itself, which was recently approved by both houses of Afghanistan’s parliament, has attracted international attention largely because it has been portrayed as a self-serving political ploy. Those likely to benefit most from the legislation are legislators and government officials themselves, many of whom are former mujahideen who stepped into the political vacuum following the fall of the Taliban.

Among the speakers at Friday’s event were members of parliament, the vice president, the president’s top security adviser, an army chief of staff, and an energy minister.

To them, amnesty does offer a measure of self-preservation. The momentum for warlord amnesty here began after the execution of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a onetime US ally.

Former mujahideen members of parliament “thought that there might be a day that maybe they will face the same thing that Saddam Hussein faced,” says Najibullah Kabuli, a member of the lower house of the Afghan parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, who abstained from voting on the amnesty bill because he thinks it is too broad.

“Didn’t the US support the mujahideen?” asks protester Abdul Malik, noting how the mujahideen, too, were allies of the United States during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Even after the fall of the Taliban, the international community could have taken a stronger stand against allowing former warlords into politics, says Mr. Kabuli, the member of parliament. For a country that has been at war for 25 years, “it was not possible to have a government that was free of war criminals,” he says. “But it was possible for the government to have fewer of these.”

As the political winds have shifted from a focus purely on stability to issues of human rights and good governance, former mujahideen have emerged as an easy target.

A report by Human Rights Watch, for instance, called for several members of the government to be tried for war crimes.

“Human Rights Watch should consider the stability of Afghanistan, otherwise Afghanistan will go toward crisis again,” cried security adviser Mohammed Qasim Fahim. “This country we have today was created by the holy war, by the mujahideen, and by their sacrifices.”

In this conviction lies the warlords’ greatest power. In a nation with a tribal heritage and a history of endless foreign interventions and abandonments, Afghans have come to trust only on those closest to them. As a result, warlords are able to mobilize unshakable support though regional or ethnic alliances.

Protesters say amnesty brings unity

For those who slogged through the mud of Kabul’s soccer stadium, thrusting frenzied fists into the air and bearing massive posters of commanders around the field in a triumphal march, the amnesty is partially an act of healing these historic rifts. Mujahideen commanders who once turned Kabul to rubble in their attempts to kill each other were now standing side by side.

“This is a war-torn country,” says Mujahid, his hands folded behind his back, counting crimson prayer beads. “We have suffered a lot and we don’t want to fight each other again.”

“Let’s forget about the past and think about a prosperous future,” he says. “We want to be united.”

A peaceful protest is a part of that message, some say. “We want to show the people of the world that one day we were evil to each other, but we can be peaceful, too,” says Mr. Malik.

However, many Afghans and experts alike are skeptical. “These things tend to be cyclical – there tend to be alliances of convenience,” says Mr. Fishstein.

Far from the echoes of the soccer stadium, Kabul resident Mohammad Ewaz sits on a stone wall in the hills high above the Kabul plains. In the amber light of late afternoon, he sips his tea, taking a break from the new wall he and his friends are building a few feet away.

Farther down the slope, the remnants of shattered houses, destroyed in the civil war, emerge from the hillside. “This is the work of the people who are asking for amnesty,” he says.

“If they are really intending to bring unity, then it is a good idea,” he adds. “But if it is just words and nothing else, then I don’t think that it is a useful thing.”

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February 27, 2007 at 5:26 am

Posted in Human Rights

AFGHANISTAN: President pressured to sign controversial amnesty bill

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KABUL, 26 February 2007 (IRIN) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai is under pressure to sign a controversial amnesty bill approved by the country’s national assembly last week. The bill provides sweeping immunity for those guilty of war crimes committed over the past two and a half decades of conflict in the country.

The 49-year-old Afghan leader had earlier decided not to sign the bill, but pressure for him to sign the document into law has been steadily rising. However, the 12-point bill must also be harmonised with the country’s constitution.

“The President would amend it [the bill] in a way that should not violate the country’s constitution or Sharia law,” Asif Naang, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, told IRIN on Sunday.

On Friday, more than 25,000 people rallied in the capital, Kabul, calling on Karzai to approve the bill. If signed by the president and made law, the bill would effectively shield those accused of serious human rights violations, many of them former Mujahideen (Afghan resistance fighters) who fought Jihad (a holy war) against the Soviet invasion in 1980s.

Former Mujahideen leaders – including second Vice-President Karim Khalili, Minister of Water and Energy Ismael Khan, former Defence Minister Qaseem Fahim and former Afghan president Burhanudin Rabani – took part in Friday’s rally, sending a clear message that the Mujahideen still wield significant power in the country.

Supporters of the bill have called it a trust-building mechanism that would encourage various factions in post-Taliban Afghanistan to work closer together in building peace and stability for the country.

Others were even more vocal. “Those who oppose the bill, in fact, oppose Islam and reconciliation,” Abdul Raab Rasoul Sayaf, an MP and former Mujahideen leader, said.

However, lawmakers, rights groups and the international community object to the bill.

“We call on the President to decline the bill,” Kabir Ranjbar, a member of Afghanistan’s Lower House, said.

Ranjbar and other MPs have criticised the amnesty saying not only would it contravene the country’s constitution, but also the rights of thousands of Afghan victims.

Karzai has said he will only act in accordance with the constitution, adding that no one, including himself, could grant blanket immunity to war criminals.

President in difficult position

“The President is in a difficult position,” Nasrullah Aabid, a Kabul University lecturer, said. “From one side, his second deputy and some cabinet members have put pressure on him to sign the bill, while on the other hand the United Nations, rights groups and many others want him to decline it.”

If Karzai declines the bill, there is likely to be trouble from its supporters. And if he accepts the bill, there is a possibility of protests by victims of war crimes.

Ahmad Nadir Nadiri, spokesman for Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission, said the government must not ignore the millions of silent victims of wars and violence in Afghanistan who expect justice and fairness. “It is upon the government of Afghanistan to ensure both security and implement justice,” he said.

On 31 January, the country’s 249-seat lower house initiated the amnesty-for-all bill in defiant reaction to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report in which Karzai’s government was called upon to prosecute all those accused of mass human rights violations and war crimes in the country.

The international watchdog named some of those who, according to the organisation, had committed widespread violence during decades of war in Afghanistan.

The controversial bill, which criticised the HRW report, was approved by the upper house of Afghanistan’s national assembly on 20 February, bringing it one step closer to becoming a law.

Under the country’s constitution, if Karzai refuses to sign the bill, it will revert to the Lower House where it will require a two-third majority to overrule the President and come into effect.

Around 80,000 civilians were killed in Kabul alone during the internal fighting between various Mujahideen groups in the 1990s after the Soviets pulled out of the country in 1989. Many others were kidnapped, mutilated or raped between 1992 and 1996 as the country plunged into a chaotic civil war.

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February 27, 2007 at 5:26 am

Posted in Human Rights

Hepatitis E detected in Afghanistan

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KABUL, Feb. 26 (Xinhua) — Health authorities have detected the outbreak of Hepatitis E in Afghanistan’s eastern Laghman province, spokesman of UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) said Monday.

An outbreak of 33 cases of viral hepatitis E has been identified in Farashghan village of Dawlatshah district of Laghman province, Adrian Edwards told newsmen at a weekly press briefing.

Seventeen cases of the epidemic were detected in December and 16 others were identified in January respectively, he added.

Hepatitis E is an acute illness of fever and jaundice caused by contaminated water, the spokesman added.

Only 40 percent of Afghans have access to safe drinking water.

The UN Children’s Fund has donated materials to conduct a health education campaign to inform the villagers how to prevent the disease though home treatment of water and sanitation measures.

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February 27, 2007 at 5:25 am

Posted in Health

Thousands of birds vaccinated in Afghanistan

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Mon Feb 26, 6:26 AM ET

KABUL (AFP) – Around 4,000 chickens a day are being vaccinated in Afghanistan after outbreaks of the H5N1 virus but the slaughtering of birds is being slowed by local resistance.

Teams started working in the eastern city of Jalalabad and in Kunar province at the weekend after confirmed cases of the virus, which has killed 167 people worldwide since 2003.

Suspected poultry was being quarantined and contaminated areas were being disinfected, UN spokesman Adrian Edwards said.

“At this time the situation is under control,” he said.

The slaughtering of birds was facing resistance among local people, agriculture department director Aziz Usmani said.

“People are not always willing to allow their birds to be culled,” he said.

Officials say Afghanistan is at high risk of H5N1 spreading to humans because most families keep birds at home.

Scientists fear a global pandemic if the virus mutates and becomes easily transmissible between humans.

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February 27, 2007 at 5:25 am

Posted in Health

Television gaining ground in Afghanistan: Survey

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zeenews.com (India)

New York, Feb 25: Television is gaining ground in Afghanistan as the most important news and entertainment source in urban areas despite continued difficulties with security and reconstruction, according to recent media surveys in the war-torn country.

“Television use and importance is rising most quickly in Kabul, where socio-economic conditions are better than in the rest of the country, and among young people aged 15-24,” the surveys conducted by Washington-based media and public opinon research organisation, Intermedia.

“From 2005 to 2006, television access in the city rose from 59 to 78 percent. Even urban residents who can’t afford to buy a television set have greater access to places where TV is available-others’ homes, cafes and work places.

“However, due to problems with infrastructure, mainly a lack of consistent electricity and little disposable income, television’s appeal is more socially desirable than affordable for many Afghans,” the survey found.

In a country where 84 per cent of the population is rural, the urban-rural split is pronounced: nationwide only 37 per cent of Afghans claim to watch TV weekly, compared to 89 per cent in Kabul.

The capital’s viewers can choose from six privately run channels.

Intermedia found that Tolo TV, funded by an Australian-based Afghan businessman, is most popular, with programmes including a nightly newscast, roundtable discussions, Islamic programming, and shows on cinema, cooking, music and sports.

Afghan state TV is the second most important information source.

The station’s principal focus is news, the tone of which, Intermedia says, is usually consistent with the government line.

When it has strayed from this, officials, religious leaders and culturally conservative print outlets have accused the channel of sowing dissent and disrespecting Islam, which in turn has resulted in some self-censorship.

Other challenges remain before Afghans have true choice in terms of media platforms and diversity of views. More than 25 years of war has devastated the country’s infrastructure, leaving radio as the most reliable means of news and entertainment.

“In 2006, Afghans witnessed increased violence in their country, yet interest in news and overall media consumption declined. This is unusual because media use typically spikes during wars and other crises,” says Jacob English, an Intermedia project manager for the Middle East and North Africa.

But in Afghanistan, many are skeptical of domestic media, perceiving these outlets as biased due to their ties with political figures and factions-thus, the decreased interest in news, which may be due at least in part to dissatisfaction with available media outlets. Nonetheless, the need for news and information will not disappear.”

In a country where 56 per cent of the people are under 34, the survey found young Afghans embrace television and other new technologies more readily than older generations.

TV access among those 15-24 has remained steady at more than 30 per cent since 2004, but averages less than 15 per cent for those over 45. International and local media producers realize this and are creating programmes to target young Afghans.

Bureau Report

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February 25, 2007 at 9:58 pm

Posted in Culture and Arts