25 May 2006 Edition

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Amnesty highlights reality of Afghanistan

International: Irish Government complicity comes back to haunt

When the Fianna Fáil/PD government allowed US planes to use Shannon Airport en route to the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, they probably never thought that their actions would come back to haunt them. Now they have, in the form of Afghan refugees, reminding the Irish Government of its shared responsibility for their plight.

Last week, as 41 Afghan refugees began a hunger strike in Dublin's St Patrick's Cathedral, he asked the public to bear in mind that "although there are disturbances in Afghanistan, that doesn't mean that anybody has a right to come and live in Ireland." What McDowell didn't say is that the disturbances he was referring were not of the order of youngsters throwing stones. Had he bothered to read the Amnesty International Report 2005 or even news coverage of the situation in Afghanistan he would see that the "disturbances" are about as serious as they get.

On Saturday 20 May, hours before the men ended their protest, Taliban insurgents ambushed a convoy of Afghan government forces killing at least 16 people including two French soldiers. Fighting in Southern Afghanistan in recent days has been the most fierce since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001. It comes as thousands of NATO peacekeepers are arriving in the region. And this violence is not reduced to rural areas. In Kabul at least 14 people were killed when Taliban insurgents ambushed an Afghan government convoy. A 24-hour wave of violence killed some 120 people.

Afghanistan is another war that US President Bush declared was over. However, the Taliban has stepped up attacks on foreign and government forces in recent months as NATO expands its peacekeeping forces from 9,000 to 16,000, in preparation for taking control in the south from US-led forces.

Amnesty International's 2005 Report, covering events from January to December 2004, describes how "Lawlessness and insecurity increased, hampering efforts towards peace and stability. Anti-government forces killed civilians involved in the electoral process, making large parts of the country inaccessible to humanitarian organisations. US forces continued arbitrary and unlawful detentions and failed to conduct independent investigations of reports that Afghan prisoners had been tortured and ill-treated. Armed groups committed abuses against civilians with impunity, including the abduction and rape of girls. Justice and redress were unobtainable for women who experienced widespread discrimination and violence in the community, including abduction, rape and forced marriage".

Threats to asylum seekers

The report also pointed out how the government is forcing asylum seekers and refugees to return to Afghanistan despite continuing threats to their safety: "Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan faced growing harassment and many returned to Afghanistan. In October, Iran declared its intention to repatriate most Afghans in Iran over the next 16 months. Other countries returned rejected Afghan asylum-seekers without ensuring that they could return in dignity and safety".

Amnesty International reports how armed groups across the country control the local population and exercise their own kind of justice, killing civilians, aid workers, election officials and potential voters. By the third quarter of 2004, at least 21 aid workers, mostly Afghan nationals, had been killed. Examples in the report included: In January, a bomb intended for US Coalition Forces killed 15 schoolchildren in Kandahar. Taliban officials, who had originally denied involvement in the incident, later issued an apology following public outrage. In June, 16 passengers on a bus were deliberately killed by armed men, reportedly because they were carrying voter registration cards.

Judging from Amnesty International's report, Bush's democracy building exercise is not taking hold in Afghanistan, where "the judiciary remained ineffective, corrupt and susceptible to intimidation from armed groups", while "abuses by police officers were not investigated, and the effectiveness of the force was hampered by a lack of oversight mechanisms, affiliation to regional armed groups, non-payment of salaries and lack of equipment.... Regional officials and commanders with a record of human rights violations flaunted their impunity, some of them maintaining links with armed groups responsible for abuses... Afghan government forces were not held to account for violating international law on the treatment of prisoners. No action was known to have been taken against soldiers who reportedly beheaded prisoners in southern Afghanistan in June [2004] ".

The report also highlights the inhumane conditions and gross human rights violations in Afghan prisons, "especially outside Kabul where provincial prisons remained under the control of armed groups."

However, the actions of low rank officers are not surprising, considering some of the members of the government appointed by Afghan President, Hamid Karzai. These are former defence minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, and Vice President in Karzai's government, linked to war crimes and serious human rights abuses committed in the 1990s; Arsala Rahmani, a former high-level in the Taliban's religious affairs ministry, imposed severe restrictions of basic freedoms, particularly for women; and Sher Mohammed Akhunzada, currently governor of Helmand province, is linked to recent abuses committed by forces under his control, including private prisons.

Sam Zarifi, Asia research director at Human Rights Watch, explained how "many Afghans are worried about a parliament dominated by human rights abusers."

Evidence has emerged that abuses similar to those discovered in Iraq are taking place in Afghanistan. "Former detainees reported being made to kneel, stand or maintain painful postures for long periods, and being subjected to hooding, sleep deprivation, stripping and humiliation. Suspects were detained without legal authority and held incommunicado, without access to lawyers, families or the courts... Despite repeated calls for independent investigations of deaths in custody and reports of torture by US forces, investigations were conducted under the auspices of the US Department of Defense. Requests for access to detainees by UN human rights experts and by the AIHRC and other non-governmental bodies continued to be refused".

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