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Killing Sparks Fears of Unrest in North

Two old political foes in Mazar-e-Sharif spar over who is responsible for the killing of a newly elected member of parliament.
The assassination of a successful parliamentary candidate in Mazar-e-Sharif in September has reignited ethnic tensions in this northern city, with two powerful politicians publicly trading accusations over the murder, and demonstrations threatening to destabilise the situation further.

The trouble started with the murder of Saeed Mohammad Ashraf Ramazan, a prominent businessman and ethnic Hazara who was associated with Hezb-e-Wahdat-e-Mardum-e-Afghanistan, the party led by Haji Mohammad Mohaqeq.

Ramazan was killed in Mazar-e-Sharif on September 27, only nine days after the September 18 parliamentary election in which he apparently won a seat.

A little-known group purporting to be associated with the Taleban claimed responsibility for the attack, but the assertion convinced few people in an area of northern Afghanistan where the Taleban have not been active of late.

Mohaqeq and his supporters immediately alleged that his old political rival, Atta Mohammad Nur, the governor of the province and an ethnic Tajik, was behind the assassination. Atta is associated with the Jamiat-e-Islami party.

The two men are old enemies, having commanded rival factions in the civil wars of the Nineties.

Mohaqeq claimed that Ramazan came to see him in Kabul immediately before he was killed, complaining about the governor and expressing fears that he might try to have him eliminated.

Atta has denied the accusations, and makes the counter-claim that Mohaqeq himself was behind the assassination.

“I have never had any problems with Ashraf Ramzan,” said Atta. “This is a plot masterminded by Mohaqeq, who wants to mobilise the Hazara community against me.”

Since the killing, tensions have been steadily rising. In early October, over 1,000 Hazaras rioted in Mazar, blocking the road to Kabul for 24 hours. Dressed in white, the colour of martyrdom, they carried signs reading, “We will be martyrs like Ramazan - or we will get his killer.”

The demonstrators demanded the removal of Atta, and asked the central government and the international community for help. They also called for Ramazan’s brother to be allowed to take his seat in parliament, even though election law requires that the next-highest vote-winner on the list is awarded the seat.

The Kabul government was forced to send in 300 rapid-reaction troops to quell the disturbance.

Following the demonstration, three men were arrested in connection with the assassination. One of them, Habibrahman, had close ties to the governor. The three were released in early November, but the unrest continued.

A demonstration, this time in support of the three suspects, was held on November 7 in front of the Balkh provincial prosecutor’s office.

“We are demanding that the rights of these three people be defended,” said Abdul Majid, one of the protestors. “Those who make such accusations should be arrested so that they can't land other people in trouble in future.”

Mohaqeq and his supporters were furious at the release, and believed the governor was just acting to protect himself.

According to Sardar Saidi, Mohaqeq’s deputy in Hezb-e-Wahdat, “Based on evidence and witnesses that we have, one of the people involved in Ramazan’s murder is a commander linked to Atta Mohammad.”

The governor does not deny the connection. “Habibrahman is one of my commanders, who was with me during the jihad,” said Atta. “I am sure he will be proved innocent.”

On November 10, the three men were again detained – but this time they were sent to Kabul for interrogation.

“The [victim's] family complained to Kabul that the provincial government is under the control of governor Atta Mohammad Noor,” explained Ghafar Lalpurwal, head of the interrogation branch of the Balkh prosecutors’ office. “We held these men for 20 days, and found no evidence of their guilt. They are innocent to us. But we received an order from the president to send them to the centre, so we rearrested the three and sent them to Kabul.

"Now the central government and the prosecutor’s office can decide about them. For us, the case is finished.”

Observers say Kabul may have felt a need to intervene because of fears that Ramazan’s murder could ignite ethnic and political tensions that have been brewing for years.

There has been friction between the Tajik and Hazara communities in Mazar-e-Sharif in the past, most recently in 2004, when land and government posts were being distributed. According to many Hazaras, Atta used his position to further his own interests at their expense.

“The governor gave most of the land to his supporters, and declared any land distributed to the Hazaras to be illegal. He also used various pretexts to get rid of any Hazaras working in the government,” said Mohaqeq's deputy Saidi.

Qayom Babak, a political analyst and editor of the Jahan-e-Now magazine, said it appears both sides are attempting to exploit Ramazan’s death for their own ends.

“Stability and peace are not in these parties’ best interests,” he said. “Mohaqeq and Atta have been at each others’ throats for years over the distribution of government posts in the province. The murder of Ramazan is a chance for them to show their power.”

Ghulam Farooq Khpelwak, a political analyst who lectures at Balkh University, said that the fact that the government intervened showed just how explosive the situation in the north has become.

“Other candidates have been killed and the government has done nothing more than express condolences,” he said. “This time they understood that they had to act. Oil has been poured on the flames of religious, tribal, and party enmity.”

General Gul Nabi Ahmadzai, the education chief at the Afghan interior ministry who has been assigned to investigate the Ramazan murder, agreed.

”The recent case in Mazar-e-Sharif has deep roots… and has paved the way for insurgency in this province,” he told IWPR. "The government's objectives are to head off a crisis in the north, and to investigate the murder case.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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