Drinkers Dismissive of Latest Alcohol Ban

Locals say they will find way round new curbs on drinking.

Drinkers Dismissive of Latest Alcohol Ban

Locals say they will find way round new curbs on drinking.

Kabul resident Abdul Rasul, like many Afghans, doesn’t think much of a recent toughening of legislation banning alcohol consumption. “Do you really think the government can stop people drinking wine,” he said dismissively.

Although Afghanistan is a Muslim country, alcohol, which is proscribed by Islam, is readily available – and consumption is rising, especially among young people, despite it being illegal.

Police have in the past tended to take a laissez-faire attitude to tipplers, but the new law – called Against Intoxicating Beverages and Narcotics – signals a hardening of attitude, not that ordinary people are that concerned.

“We know the new law will create a little problem for us, but we will try do deal with it as we do now,” said one merchant, who stores his stock of alcohol away from the prying eyes of police officers. “I know alcoholic beverages are illegal but some people need them.”

A bill passed by parliament at the end of May – but yet to officially come into force – will put alcohol merchants and drinkers on the same legal footing as drug addicts and traffickers. Those who sell liquor could be imprisoned for anything from ten days to 20 years, while their customers will face punishments dictated by Hanafi jurisprudence – the body of Islamic law that applies to Sunnis in Afghanistan – which, for instance, prescribes 60 lashes for drinking wine.

The law also mandates tougher penalties for drug smuggling, with those convicted and jailed stripped of property bought with the proceeds of trafficking. In addition, the legislation targets high-level government officials implicated in the narcotics business. Previously, the focus was mainly on lower level smugglers.

Prior to the law’s passage, alcohol had been an afterthought in Afghan law, mentioned only as an adjunct to the ban on narcotics, with less severe punishments (up to six months imprisonment or fines of between 60-120 US dollars) than those prescribed by the new legislation.

Afghan legislators are adamant that alcohol should be put in the same category as drug offences.

“The similarity of alcohol and narcotics make it necessary to have specific [laws] on alcohol,” said Mawlawi Erfanullah Erfan, a member of the parliamentary commission on countering narcotics, intoxicating beverages and moral corruption.

With the law yet to officially come into force, many questions remain about its implementation.

For one thing, it is not clear whether enforcement will be left to counter-narcotics squads or a special police service will be created.

But police officials are not overly concerned. “We have the necessary capacity to prevent violation of the law,” said Zmerai Bashiri, spokesman for the interior ministry.

A more controversial question is whether the new law will apply to foreigners. Afghanistan hosts tens of thousands, many of whom drink on a regular basis. Up until now, what prohibitions on alcohol did exist were applied only to Muslims.

But the Afghan constitution clearly states that foreigners residing in Afghanistan are subject to the same laws as ordinary citizens, within the limits of international law.

However, Islamic scholars believe that Hanafi jurisprudence cannot be applied to non-Muslims.

“Since foreigners are not within the framework of Islam, this punishment cannot apply to them,” said Mawlawi Abdul Manan, who teaches in a madrassa in Samangan province.

Meanwhile, many Afghans dismiss the idea that any ban on alcohol will really make a difference.

A young man who was haggling with the shopkeeper over the price of a bottle of whisky, laughed and said, “I have guests tonight. I’ll get hold of a bottle one way or another, no matter what law they pass.”

He said that he could not understand what all the fuss was about.

“There are a lot of other things that should be banned before alcohol,” he said. “Alcohol is not like drugs, which can destroy your life. All people in the world drink. Why is it a crime if we do?”

Some legislators are even sceptical about the law’s effectiveness, particularly on combating drug smuggling.

“A chapter of this law touches on government officials, and can only be effective if the government has the capability to implement it,” said Erfan.

It is commonly acknowledged that high-ranking officials in the government are linked to drug smuggling, but none have yet been exposed or arrested.

“I just had a few kilogrammes of hashish, and I’ve been in jail for months,” said a young man convicted of drugs offences. “But those who smuggle heroin by the truckload are working in the government. The law is just a piece of paper to those with power and money.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter.
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