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 Loya Jirga Off to Shaky Start
 Human Rights Watch, international
 June 13, 2002
(Kabul, Afghanistan)—The first two days of the loya jirga demonstrate the promise and pitfalls facing the delegates to the grand national assembly, Human Rights Watch said today. On Tuesday, delegates reported being subject to intimidation by warlords and surveillance by agents of the Afghan intelligence service. On Wednesday, despite this ominous atmosphere, the delegates debated Afghanistan’s future in full legislative session.

"There is a clear desire by the legitimate delegates to make the loya jirga work, to select a civilian government committed to peace and rebuilding," said Saman Zia-Zarifi, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Both their hope and their fear are visible."

On Tuesday, warlords not appointed to the assembly were allowed inside the tent where the loya jirga is in session, mingling with the delegates and threatening those who called for their exclusion or opposed their agenda. Several delegates, including some women, reported threats when they complained about the warlords’ participation in the grand national assembly. Other delegates reported alarm at the heavy presence of agents from the Afghan Intelligence Service (Amniat-e Melli).

"After subverting the voting process in many regions of Afghanistan, the warlords are now trying to hijack the loya jirga itself," said Zia-Zarifi. "If the warlords succeed in their nefarious quests the security of the Afghan people will be put squarely in the hands of those most likely to threaten it."

The loya jirga was delayed for one day during which U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was instrumental in sidelining the former Afghan king, Zahir Shah. The king subsequently renounced any role in governing Afghanistan. Khalilzad’s active intervention was in stark contrast to the U.S. government’s failure to implement the Bonn agreement’s exclusion of warlords from the loya jirga.

Delegates, regardless of their political affiliations, expressed consternation at U.S. intrusiveness in undermining the popular former king. "It has created the perception among Afghans that the U.S. is preempting the loya jirga’s choice," said Zia-Zarifi.

According to delegates interviewed by Human Rights Watch, a number of the most prominent warlords gathered Monday night to divide power in the next government.

In response, several women delegates complained publicly about the presence of figures widely held responsible for Afghanistan’s devastating decade of civil war and ensuing atrocities.

"The Bonn agreement was drafted to increase the involvement of legitimate representatives of Afghan civil society and to decrease the power of warlords," explained Zia-Zarifi. "For the Bonn project to succeed, the international community must increase security, intensify human rights monitoring, and exclude the warlords from the loya jirga."

Candidates with a history of human rights abuses were to be excluded from the loya jirga under Article 14 of the procedures governing the loya jirga. It states that delegates "should not have been involved in ‘abuse of human rights, war crimes, looting of public property’ and not have been involved indirectly or directly in the killing of innocent human beings." However, Human Rights Watch is not aware of a single case in which this exclusion clause was used, despite the presence of some of Afghanistan’s most abusive warlords among the delegates.

A woman delegate, who asked to remain anonymous, told Human Rights Watch, "We are hostages of the people who destroyed Afghanistan. They [the warlords] are trying to hold us hostage to their power." Consistent with reports from many others, the delegate went on to describe efforts to coerce delegates. "There are petitions being circulated and we are pressed to just sign them without reading them, to agree with what is being said about who should be a candidate or chairman or have positions in the government. But we aren’t given a chance to read these decisions, they just say ‘sign it.’"

The same delegate told Human Rights Watch that as a result of a public complaint she had been threatened by men associated with one of the warlords: "They told me, ‘you either mend your ways or we will mend them for you.’"

Other delegates said they were troubled by the intrusive presence of agents of the Afghan intelligence service and their obvious efforts to monitor the delegates’ discussions. The intelligence service is widely believed to be dominated by the forces of the predominantly ethnic Tajik Shura-yi Nazar, a political group founded by former president Rabbani and the late Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. This party currently holds the key cabinet posts of defense, interior, and foreign affairs.

One delegate, an experienced Afghan journalist, told Human Rights Watch, "Amniat [the Afghan intelligence service] was checking people, overhearing conversations, looking into rooms. They were marching around with a camera, photographing people. There were also plainclothes security police with cameras. We recognized them from the old days [under Communist president Najibullah]."

Another delegate said that the intelligence agents had received credentials granting them full access to all areas of the loya jirga compound, contrary to the delegates’ expectations. Officials of the loya jirga confirmed this.

"There is an urgent need for the security forces to protect the delegates from outside intimidation," said Zia-Zarifi. "The special commission of the loya jirga and the United Nations should immediately remove any partisan from the loya jirga area."

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