Arrests Spook New Coalition

Pro-democracy politicians discouraged from joining new progressive movement after the arrest of some of its founding members.

Arrests Spook New Coalition

Pro-democracy politicians discouraged from joining new progressive movement after the arrest of some of its founding members.

Four members of a fledgling coalition of pro-democracy political parties have been detained by national intelligence agents in the past week, scaring off some of the other parties that had pledged to join.

The National Democratic Front, NDF, in the works for several months, signed up 60 parties and groups last week. However, by the time the coalition formally launched on March 10, the number had dropped to 45.

Ahmad Khalid, a literature student at Kabul University and a member of the NDF, was arrested on campus by intelligence agents the day of the launch as he handed an invitation card to another student.

Nasrullah Stanakzai, a teacher of political science faculty, pointed out the student to the intelligence agents at the university, an NDF leader said. The agents took Khalid to their central office and interrogated him. He was released later that day.

Stanakzai was a foreign affairs counselor for Molavi Kabir, deputy of the ministers’ council, during the Taleban era. After the collapse of the student militia, he was supported by influential relatives in the Northern Alliance, and he is now considered a second-tier adviser to President Karzai.

NDF members questioned how someone with such connections to the Taleban could so brazenly oppose democratic movements under the Karzai government.

Khalid told IWPR that intelligence agents “warned me that the party law hasn’t been announced yet, therefore I don’t have the right to carry out political activities. There is no permission for the democratic parties”.

The law on political parties is under consideration by a special group of cabinet members. However, they are permitted under the 1964 constitution, which is the law of the land under the Bonn Agreement until a new one is approved.

Under the new law, parties will have to register with the ministry of justice. There are concerns that they will also have to register with the national intelligence service, Amniat-e-Milli, to whom they would also be expected to provide information about their articles of association, programmes and financial sources.

Some parties are concerned that registration will be followed by harassment, as they don't trust Amniat-e-Milli. Pashtuns, Hazara and Uzbeks fear they will persecuted on the grounds of their ethnicity. However, the minister of justice, Abdul Rahim Karimi, told IWPR that the proposed legislation only obliges parties to register with his ministry. "We won't permit the intelligence service to get involved in the process or to extract information from us," he said.

Intelligence agents also arrested three members of the NDF in Herat on March 8, and interrogated them for three days. The three said they had been told they were forbidden from carrying out political activities. The head of the NDF, Sibghatullah Sanger, refused to give the names of the detainees “for security reasons”.

Intelligence officials would not comment on the arrests.

The idea for the new political alliance was first raised after the Loya Jirga last June, when some Afghans expressed dissatisfaction with the grand council's decisions, notably the retention in power of various Islamic extremists and warlords who have sought to block democratic movements and parties.

Liberal-minded intellectuals have become increasingly concerned about the influence of extremists in President Hamed Karzai's transitional government. In January, a group of young intellectuals proposed a broad-based political coalition to counter the radicals and offer an alternative to religious and ethnic-based parties. They sought to support human rights and democracy, and gain support from other countries.

The United Nations and representatives from a number of western governments assisted in the creation of the coalition. The National Democratic Institute, an American NGO affiliated with the Democratic Party, took an active role in the formation of the front. A member of UNAMA, the UN political office for Afghanistan, and political representatives from the Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and British governments also participated.

Members of the new group have been threatened in recent weeks by extremist organisations, which appear to regard it as a threat to the existing political order.

Khalid’s arrest in particular alarmed some members of the coalition, and just prior to the launch of the coalition more than a dozen members withdrew out of fear that they, too, would be arrested. Nonetheless, the event, staged at the Intercontinental Hotel, drew even more people than the 400 who were expected.

The withdrawal of some members of the coalition, however, has raised concern that the coalition may start breaking up before it has a chance to properly establish itself.

The platform of the NDF, completed and presented by the founders to the membership on February 28, is highly progressive. Its main elements include equal rights for men and women; separation of military and civilian authority; freedom of speech and religion; a campaign against drugs and terrorism; the creation of a tribunal for trying war crimes; and the building of a civil society.

The alliance's founders are hoping to attract the votes of progressive, patriotic-minded Afghans in elections scheduled for June 2004, in order to help establish a democratic government.

Several government ministry officials who attended the launch disappeared soon after the political speeches began. Only Abdul Hameed Mubarez, deputy minister for publications in the information and culture ministry, remained to the end.

“The opposition to democracy is large and powerful,” Abul Ahrar Ramizpur, head of the Progressive Council and NDF spokesman, told IWPR afterwards. “They wanted to sabotage the gathering. But we assure the people that we will strengthen this front, and we are ready for any kind of campaign.”

Rahimullah Samander is an IWPR staff reporter and editor in Kabul.

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