Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Protest Ban Angers Students

Students in Jalalabad say campus clampdown is a blow for democracy.
By Ezatullah Waqar

For students at the University of Nangarhar, it’s a grim reminder of the country’s troubled past.


A ban on demonstrations and all forms of political activity on the Jalalabad campus has left many of those studying there fearful and angry.


Reflecting the mood, Mohammad Naeem, a fourth-year economics student, said he refuses to accept the curbs, “This is the act against democracy, and our rights should be given back to us.”


The university clamped down came after a demonstration in late March against the US-led strikes in Iraq. The protest began on campus, and moved towards town, gathering more than 2,000 people.


In an official communiqué, issued March 29, students were warned that they would be expelled if they participated in political activities, gatherings and demonstrations.


The imposition of the curbs is a blow to efforts to restore democracy and undermines attempts by both government officials and international welfare organisations to improve the rights of local Afghans, including the freedom of expression.


Moreover, some argue the restrictions may be illegal. On January 9, President Hamed Karzai signed a decree allowing peaceful demonstrations, providing they are in the interests of national unity and do not contravene the law.


A justice ministry official, who asked not to be named, said, “Students and all people have the right to demonstrate peacefully according to this legislation. The officials who forbade the students from demonstrating acted against the legislation.”


But the official added that under certain circumstances, the authorities have the right to stop such protests, for instance when participants are carrying weapons.


The dean of the university, Professor Abdul Qadir Fazli, dismissed suggestions that high-ranking officials forced them to impose the restrictions. “We are under no kind of pressure and carefully made that decision after the [March] demonstration,” he said.


Ghulam Ali Amin, deputy director of student affairs at the University of Kabul, the largest in the country, said, “We can’t stop the students from leading demonstrations because, according to the law, they have the right to rally.”


But, he admitted, “We have, unofficially, put a ban on political protests.”


That unofficial ban came about after two protests in November in the capital that led to five students being killed by police.


Students at the University of Nangarhar are angry about the restrictions at their campus - a grim reminder of the times when the mujahedin and later the Taleban were in power. Under the latter, medical students at the campus were shot down by a faculty bodyguard when they protested over poor conditions.


Nangrahar university is the second-largest in the country, with 1,500 students, and some fear their rights are being eroded.


Shahidullah, a second-year politics student, said there should be an association for the defense of student rights. “Prior to 1992, students had associations, which were making decisions about their lawful demands,” he noted.


At least one member of staff at the university agreed with the students.


Mirwais Ahmadzai, head of the political science faculty, said he considered the curbs a violation of democratic principles, but conceded the “circumstances in the country” did not permit such demonstrations.


Ismaeel Yoon, speaker of the last Loya Jirga and a well-known poet and writer, has voiced opposition to university campuses becoming places for political activity. Teachers, he said, “can discuss politics in the politics class”.


He added that students can form associations and hold gatherings but that their main duty is to learn.


Curiously, the university’s restrictions do not apply to the medical faculty. “We haven’t gotten any official letter,” said Professor Assadullah Shinwari, head of the faculty.


Fazli said it had been excluded because its students had not participated in the previous demonstration. “We don’t blame them,” he said.


Ezatullah Waqar and Mirwais Omarkhel are independent journalists in Jalalabad who recently completed IWPR basic journalism training. Danish Karokhel is an IWPR editor/reporter in Kabul.