Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Afghan Democrats Face Threats ; Police Beatings and a Lack of Legal Protections Stunt Political Parties before Elections Next June

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Afghan Democrats Face Threats ; Police Beatings and a Lack of Legal Protections Stunt Political Parties before Elections Next June

Article excerpt

During the dark years of Taliban rule, members of Afghanistan's opposition Republican Party worked underground, fearful of beatings, arrest, and execution.

Twenty-one months after a US-led coalition drove the radical Islamic movement from Afghanistan, they are still underground.

"The police threaten us all the time,'' says Faiz Mohammad Ghori, a student member the Republican Party in the northern city of Mazar- e Sharif. "We have to keep our heads down - you never know when they're coming back.''

Afghanistan's fledgling opposition parties say the Northern Alliance factions that helped oust the Taliban in 2001 are using threats and force to keep them out of elections scheduled for next year.

The intimidation could stunt the influence of moderates and liberals, boosting the strength of Islamic fundamentalists in a future Afghan government, further alienating Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns.

Recent reports by New York-based Human Rights Watch and the Brussels-based International Crisis Group accused forces loyal to Defense Minister Muhammad Qasim Fahim and other Northern Alliance commanders of using police, soldiers, and intelligence agents to intimidate dissenting politicians, newspaper editors, and ethnic Pashtun leaders. (A spokesman for Mr. Fahim didn't return calls for comment.)

Afghanistan's president has acknowledged that general human rights abuses persist, but argues that the situation is improving. "There is no doubt that there are violations committed by certain gun holders,'' Hamid Karzai told the BBC recently. "But the intensity of this, the spirit of this, has reduced considerably.''

Under the terms of the December 2001 Bonn Agreement between the victorious antiTaliban factions, President Karzai's government must create a constitution and hold elections by June 2004. It would be the first in decades.

In October, a constitutional loya jirga, or grand council, is planned to decide how Afghanistan will be governed and what role Islam will play in the government and courts.

Voter registration and elections are set to follow in June, though Afghans don't yet know what or whom they will be voting for - a president, a parliament, or some other post.

With elections just 10 months away, would-be politicians including Western-style democrats, monarchists, and the mujahideen who currently form the backbone of Karzai's government are jockeying to raise their profiles.

Many Northern Alliance commanders who fought the Communists and the Taliban have regrouped under Fahim. An ethnic Tajik from the Panjshir Valley, Fahim is viewed as a potential rival to Karzai, a Pashtun. The Taliban were dominated by Pashtuns, who make up Afghanistan's largest group with over 40 percent of the population.

Fahim and his allies control the defense and foreign ministries and the state intelligence service. Karzai has accused Fahim of delaying a plan to disarm Afghanistan's estimated 100,000 gunmen by refusing to share power with ethnic Pashtuns and members of other ethnic groups.

Two Pashtun-led parties have recently gained prominence, though their long-term impact is unclear. …

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