Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Voters Angry at “Warlord” Candidates
Residents of the northern Afghan province of Sar-e Pol are campaigning against the nomination of men they accuse of being former warlords as parliamentary candidates.
They have called on Afghanistan’s election body to exclude Haji Mohammad Rahim and Gul Mohammad Pahlavan, both former militia commanders, from the list of candidates for the September ballot.
The campaign highlights the impunity enjoyed by paramilitary commanders from Afghanistan’s recent history of bloodshed, and deficiencies in the vetting procedures for the 2,600 candidates competing for 349 seats in the lower house of parliament.
Last month, dozens of Sar-e Pol residents staged a protest in Mazar-e-Sharif against the nominations of the two men, calling for them to be barred from standing and also to be prosecuted.
While Rahim, formerly a commander with the powerful, Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e Islami faction, is a candidate in Sar-e Pol province; Pahlavan, who was a leading ethnic Uzbek militia commander in the Nineties, is standing in a neighbouring region, Faryab.
Sar-e Pol residents’ objections to both men stem from past abuses that armed groups allegedly under their command committed in that province.
One of those attending the demonstration in Mazar-e Sharif was a man called Shah Mardanqul, who could stand only with the aid of crutches.
“I was beaten so much by Hamidullah Kuchuk [former associate of Pahlavan] that I am now partly paralysed from the waist down. If Gul Mohammad gets into parliament, he will eat us alive this time,” he said.
“I don’t know what the government wants with these people. Instead of entering parliament, they should be punished. Now I just pray to God that these cruel people are punished, because there is no government any more.”
Pahlavan told IWPR in a telephone interview that Hamidullah – later killed by Taleban fighters – had been one of his sub-commanders, but denied any wrongdoing.
“We are being defamed by those who wish us ill,” he said. “We have committed no crime, and the people have asked me to nominate myself in the parliamentary election.”
Rahim told IWPR by phone that militia leaders had been officially absolved of any wrongdoing.
In the 1990s, he said, “Everyone who was a commander ruled his own region. [President Hamid] Karzai pardoned all of them in a general amnesty. I reject the allegations made by the people who went to Mazar-e Sharif to hold a demonstration.”
Rahim was referring to a law which the Afghan parliament passed in 2007 granting immunity from prosecution to combatants in conflicts from the Soviet occupation of the 1980s through the internecine bloodshed of the early 1990s and subsequent Taleban rule until the western intervention of late 2001.
Karzai did not sign off on the bill at the time because so many objections were raised by domestic and international rights groups, and the law’s status remained unclear until March 2010, when the president’s office admitted that it had entered into force without his signature.
This prompted a coalition of 24 Afghan civil society groups to call for the law to be repealed, saying that “accountability, not amnesia for past and present crimes is a prerequisite for genuine reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan”.
In the 2005 parliamentary election, the electoral complaints body barred 34 candidates under a provision in the election law barring anyone who led or was part of a non-state military organisation. Many top commanders from the wars of the 1990s nevertheless got into parliament by formally distancing themselves from paramilitary factions associated with them.
This time, too, the elections watchdog has blocked candidates from Afghanistan's upcoming parliamentary elections over links to private militias.
A member of the Electoral Complaints Commission, Ahmad Zia Rafat, said, “The ECC has decided to remove some 36 names of candidates from 17 provinces... over alleged links to illegal armed groups.”
He added that more candidates were likely to be blocked before the election.
However, the legal framework for preventing alleged warlords from standing is limited. Aside from not submitting the right documentation, the major barrier is a provision in the constitution stating that prospective candidates must not have a past criminal conviction.
The reality is that it is powerful men with armed men behind them who have made the law over the last three decades, and there has been no fully functioning, impartial judicial system capable of calling such figures to account.
“We work according to the laws of the country and the regulations of the Independent Electoral Commission,” said Amanullah, head of the electoral commission’s office in Sar-e Pol. “We have no right to place conditions on the candidacy of former commanders who have not been convicted in any court.
“Everyone who is eligible to stand, prepares the necessary documents and submits them to the commission on time will have the right to stand and campaign for the election.”
Sima Samar, who heads the Independent Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan, said she was concerned that there were alleged war criminals on the candidate lists.
“The candidates once again include some individuals who have abused human rights in the past,” she said.
Farid Wasiq, a human rights activist in Mazar-e Sharif, said alleged war criminals were already in positions of power.
“Human rights institutions and groups working for transitional justice have collected a lot of documents relating to crimes committed by former commanders who still occupy various state post including in parliament. Reports of these human rights abuses have been published,” he said.
Nabi Asir, a legal expert and political analyst, said that he believed the quality of candidates could make the forthcoming parliament even worse than the present one, leading to years of weak and ineffective legislative activity.
“The war criminals will win, and the low public level of political awareness will have paved the way for them to succeed,” he warned. “We cannot hope that knowledgeable, literate people will get into parliament. Quite the reverse – it is the rich but illiterate, those who have intimidated people through their power and weaponry, who will enter parliament.
“Ultimately, that will be to the detriment of the welfare of people of Afghanistan.”
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