Attacks Escalate Against Afghanistan’s Human Rights Defenders

Human rights defenders in Afghanistan are suffering relentless attacks, intimidation and harassment amid escalating violence, Amnesty International has warned. In a damning report castigating both the government and armed groups including the Taliban and Islamic State, Amnesty said activists and members of civil society organisations have been shot at and killed in attacks that remain uninvestigated by the authorities. It comes at a time of intense brutality and bloodshed, despite US-Taliban talks in Doha, Qatar, in July, aimed at bringing an end to the 18-year conflict.  Twice-postponed presidential elections are also expected to be held in September.

The plight of Afghanistan’s human rights defenders has been “largely ignored” at home and abroad, according to the Amnesty report, which said activists are often accused of subverting religious and cultural traditions. The report, based on interviews with more than a dozen activists, said attacks and acts of intimidation are not limited to a geographic area and are taking place across the country, perpetrated both by state and non-state actors. “It’s a situation that has become even more precarious of late given the enduring political uncertainty and high levels of violence that afflict the country,” the report said.

More people lost their lives last year than at any time since records have been kept, according to the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan. More than 3,800 civilian deaths, including 927 children, were documented. In the first half of 2019, 1,366 people died and 2,446 were injured. Criticising the government for turning a blind eye to attacks against activists, the report said, “A key issue that emerged from this study was that often the [human rights defenders] themselves were asked to procure weapons to protect themselves.” Government officials, Amnesty said, in many cases did not believe human rights defenders when they complained to authorities, instead accusing them of fabricating their claims. “This is one of the most dangerous moments to be a human rights activist in Afghanistan,” said Omar Waraich, Deputy South Asia Director at Amnesty International. “Not only do they operate in one of the most hazardous environments, but they face threats from both the government and armed groups. The Afghan government has a duty to respect, protect and support activists, to investigate threats and attacks against them, and to hold suspected perpetrators accountable.”

In October 2015, a roadside bomb in the eastern province of Nangarhar killed two staff members of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission – two others were also wounded. The investigation into the attack has stalled, and no one has been arrested. A female human rights defender, Jamileh* told Amnesty researchers, “I have been told several times that ‘You are a woman, and you do not need to do this work. The best way is to stay at home.’ This has been told to me by police officers as high as the head of a police district.” Another female activist, Ishaqzia* told the group, “Women are more under threat than men.” One activist received a threat from the Taliban on Facebook. The message read, “You are the servant of the Jews and the infidels … we have informed the mujahideen to send you to hell.” Khalil Parsa, the only human rights activist who has been identified by his real name in the report, was shot seven times while driving home in September 2016 after receiving a series of threats demanding that he stop his human rights activities in Herat province. “I took my car and came out of the office. It was around 6.30pm. As soon as I turned from the square, which is nearby a stadium, I was shot,” he said, according to a testimony provided in the report. “I saw there were two bike riders who were on my left side. I noticed them when they shot me, in fact. I still remember part of the scene. They had fired seven bullets. Six bullets hit my body from [one] side and one bullet from the other side. After a while, a witness told me that there were two bikes and four people.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

Credit: Saeed Kamali Dehghan for The Guardian, 29 August 2019.