Activists assaulted & injured in London by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s bodyguards

Editor’s Note: This post is originally published on The Interpreter  (the Lowy Institute for International Policy)

“Sit down like a dog, you idiot” Yells President Ghani’s chief security officer Gen. Akhtar Mohammad Ibrahimi at rights activist Jafar Atai as he questions Ghani’s decision to reroute the TUTAP transmission line.  This happened at the prestigious Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) right in the capital of the United Kingdom.

“At this point Ghani’s personal guards rushed towards me. I asked them to let me talk. But they grabbed my tie, covered my mouth, pressed my neck, pulled me down and beat me up.” Jafar told me on telephone from London.

“Please help me. They are beating me.” Jafar is heard screaming in a video clip produced by AFP News Agency.  “I was almost suffocated. They expelled me violently while pulling my tie which was tightening around my neck”. Says Jafar.

“We just wanted to raise our concerns about the change in TUTAP route. We had no intension of disruption or insulting the president. It was Ghani’s guards who caused the heckling through abuse and violence.” Jafar explains. He has got bruises on his face and already filed a complaint against the attackers at Metropolitan Police in London.

“You are a liar. You lied to people of Afghanistan. And now you lie to the world.” Ahad Bahaduri from the audience had interrupted President Ghani while was thanking British soldiers for their sacrifices in Afghanistan. “Listen to him but don’t trust him” He continued as he was forcefully removed from the event. “One of Ghani’s guards followed me outside to actually beat me but he was intercepted by a British security personnel in plain dress. The Afghan guard threatened me to death (in Dari).  I am worried about my relatives back in Afghanistan now.” Ahad told me in a telephonic interview.

Although it is not the first time activists disrupt a leader’s speech to voice their concerns but it is very unprofessional, to say the least, that a visiting head of the state’s bodyguards abuse, assault and beat up British citizens and activists at a prestigious institute right in the capital of the United Kingdom. The irony, however, is that British Government has chosen to remain dead silent on the issue. All evidence suggests that the activists were at no point threatening the president and thus no point for his personal bodyguards to attack the demonstrators. It was entirely the RUSI’s responsibility to ensure the discipline at the event, not the Afghan security force’s.

Had an ethnic Brit been assaulted like Jafar Atai, it would have undoubtedly created a media hype and diplomatic crisis between the United Kingdom and Afghanistan. Apparently even the British government treats its citizens based on their ethnic background. Beating up rights activists in London and getting away with it does not strengthen freedom of expression or democratic values in anyways.

The activists are obviously disappointed over media blackout and the British government’s inaction. “Of course, not doubt about that. Although I am a British citizen but I am sure the government and the media would have definitely responded and reacted differently if I were a Mr.Green” Responds Jafar to my question if he feels abandoned.

A female attendant, Rahila Muhibi, is seen in the video clip asking Ashraf Ghani very politely about the change in TUTAP route to Salang rather than Bamyan. And this time it is Sir Malcolm Chalmers, Deputy Director-General of RUSI who tries to silence Rahila.  I contacted Rahila to know about the response despite being very polite and humble. “I was shocked.” She says.  “Sir Malcom was apologetic and let the guards do what they wanted to do.”

The presidential guards “continued to throw all sorts of unprofessional and abusive remarks and insults”. The female activist also confirms that Ghani’s guards threatened them to death, “gab nazan, mekoshomet.” (Don’t talk. I will kill you, otherwise)

“I have been having nightmares. In my dreams I see the shadows of random people chasing me. In real life, I remain absent minded. And on two occasions, I mistook another medication instead of my hay fever meds.” Rahila told me.

Siamak Harawi of Afghan Embassy in London, however, tells BBC Persian that they (the activists) were there to disrupt the President’s speech, which ultimately lead to heckle, and physical clashes.

Background

Just a couple of days before global Anti Corruption Summit in London the British Prime Minister David Cameron was caught on camera telling the Queen that leaders of two “fantastically corrupt” countries are attending the summit, namely Afghanistan and Nigeria.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani attended the event saying he had no hard feelings for the Cameron’s corruption remark because “the first part of addressing a problem begins with acknowledgment.”

However, hundreds of Afghan-British protesters demonstrated right in front of Lancaster House where the summit was being held.  They were carrying banners depicting ‘Welcome, “fantastically corrupt” leader. The demonstration was actually launched against president Ghani’s decision to change route of TUTAP (Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan) electricity project from central provinces that are dominated by ethnic Hazaras to Salang, which instead passes through northern provinces. Asian Development Bank funds the multi-billion-dollar power project.

The protesters accuse President Ashraf Ghani of ‘bias’ and even ‘racism’. They claim that Mr. Ghani has changed the rout just because he did not want the transmission line pass through Hazarajat, despite the facts German consultancy firm Fichtner has recommended Bamyan route because, among others, it “will allow connecting further generation by coal fired power plants along the route and will secure power supply of Kabul and south Afghanistan by using a separate route”.

Despite the fact that Bamyan-Wardak route is relatively safe and exposed to lesser natural disasters as compared to Salang route, the government’s decision to change the route is largely seen as plain act of discrimination against the already deprived central provinces. The fact is that there is already a transmission line passing through Salang. This has deepened the sense of deprivation amongst the residents of central Afghanistan who believe the Kabul has intentionally kept development projects away from those areas.

Multiple demonstrations have been held in various provinces against the route change, including the so-called ‘Million March’ in Kabul on May 16, in which tens of thousands of people took part. But it didn’t remain limited to Afghanistan. Afghan president who is an ethnic Pashtun is accused of having ethnic discriminations against non-Pashtuns, particularly Hazaras. British-Afghans, mostly with roots to central Afghanistan, gathered in Lancaster to demand implementation of the TUTAP power project through central provinces. They demanded the President to cancel his cabinet’s ‘bias’ decision and let the 500kv transmission line pass through Bamyan as per earlier version recommended by Fitchner.

The demonstrations followed Ahsraf Ghani’s events in London. at least four protesters where expelled by Ghani’s bodyguards as they questioned Ghani’s stance about TUTAP project.

 

 

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The desperate plight of fleeing Afghans

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Interpreter (the Lowy Institute for International Policy)

The EU recently reached an agreement with Turkey to send asylum seekers back to Turkey if they come to Europe illegally. The deal will mostly affect Afghan citizens who make up the second-largest group of asylum seekers. The Telegraph reported a few days ago that EU has a secret plan to deport 80,000 Afghan citizens.

Such developments are undoubtedly worrisome for tens of thousands of refugees who risk life and limb to flee terrorism, persecution and systematic discrimination to take refuge in the West. Human rights organisations have already condemned the Turkey deal. Amnesty International calls it ‘a historic blow to human rights’.

The irony is that the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, dubbed the ‘mayor of Kabul’ due to his limited writ in other parts of Afghanistan, said in his latest interview with the BBC on 31 March that he had ‘no sympathy’ for Afghan refugees. He had earlier criticised Afghan citizens who risk their lives to reach Europe by saying that ‘they (the refugees) think streets of Europe are paved with gold’. Ashraf Ghani, who is accused of being too soft on the Taliban in the name of  encouraging peace talks, has reportedly agreed with European countries that Afghanistan will receive all Afghan citizens if they are deported. ‘If a person is expelled from another country then you have to accept your own citizens when they return’, Ghani told Swedish Radio.

Approximately 146,000 out of the 800,000 asylum applications received by EU member countries from 1 January to 31 October 2015 were Afghans. In Sweden alone, the number of asylum seekers from Afghanistan has increased dramatically. Statistics released by Swedish Migration Agency show that 41,564 Afghans applied for asylum in Sweden in 2015, of which more than half (23,480 applicants) were unaccompanied minors, as compared to 2014 when only 3104 Afghans applied for asylum. In 2010 the figure was 2393 Afghan citizens.

There are many factors behind the rapid increase in number of Afghan refugees.

The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan

Various reports suggest the security situation has drastically deteriorated in Afghanistan since withdrawal of NATO forces in 2014. 

The Taliban has captured new territories even in the northern part of the country, previously believed to be a government stronghold. The taking of Kunduz city by the Taliban in late 2015 proved its increasing influence and boosted its confidence despite demise of leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

The UN’s 2015 Annual Report on Afghanistan reports ‘a 20 per cent increase in armed clashes’ over the previous year. The report further reads: ‘In order to assert their influence over the civilian population, anti-government elements continued to conduct targeted killings and abductions’. Between 1 August and 31 October, UNAMA documented 3693 civilian casualties, an increase of 26% compared with the same period in 2014.

Abductions and killings of Hazara civilians in Afghanistan

Hazaras, the third-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, have been persecuted by successive Afghan regimes. The Taliban killed them en masse in central and northern Afghanistan from 1998 to 2002, as has been documented by human rights groups like HRW. The Hazaras welcomed foreign intervention in Afghanistan 2001 and the subsequent removal of Taliban regime. They wholeheartedly cooperated with international forces for the establishment of a democratically elected government in Afghanistan.

Now, after over a decade of fighting costing billions of dollars, hundreds of soldiers, and thousands of civilian lives, NATO countries have left the people of Afghanistan at the mercy of Taliban. Soon after the withdrawal of NATO from Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban rapidly gained footholds in many parts of the country, with little to no resistance from Afghan security forces. Mass kidnappings and killings of ethnic Hazaras started once again. Attacks against Hazaras increased in southern and central provinces under Taliban control such as Ghazni, Zabul, Urozgan, Wardak and others.

Taliban factions compete with each other in killing civilians, mostly Hazaras, as a proof of their brutality, with the aim of terrorising the entire country.

UNAMA has reported ‘a sharp increase in the abduction and killing of civilians of Hazara ethnicity by Anti-Government Elements’.  UNAMA cites a number of examples, such as one incident on 23 February, when ‘anti-government elements abducted 30 Hazara passengers from two public buses in Zabul as they were travelling from Heart to Kabul’. UNAMA and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have detailed Taliban atrocities against Hazaras such as ‘slit(ting) throats of civilians, including the children’.

Mass abductions, the cold-blooded massacre of civilians, and the government’s persistent failure to provide protection, has created a sense of a helplessness and hopelessness among the Hazara community. Emergence of some Taliban factions as ISIS fighters has further terrorised them. With so little hope for the future, Hazaras are leaving Afghanistan, some for Europe.

Forced expulsions of Hazaras from Iran

The Swedish Migration Agency reports that a large portion of Afghan asylum seekers comes via Iran. Various reports, including one by Human Rights Watch, confirm that the Iranian regime threatens Afghan refugees with deportation if they refuse to fight for Assad regime in Syria. The Afghans, however, escape to Turkey and further to Europe in order to avoid becoming fuel in Syrian civil war. ‘Iran has not just offered Afghan refugees and migrants incentives to fight in Syria, but several said they were threatened with deportation back to Afghanistan unless they did. Faced with this bleak choice, some of these Afghan men and boys fled Iran for Europe’, reports Human Rights Watch.

‘The Syrian war has nothing to do with us. I can’t even speak their language. Why should I take part in their war? What has Assad done for me that I risk my life defending him?’ Said an Afghan asylum seeker I interviewed in Gothenburg, Sweden. The 21-year-old had fled to Turkey and then to Sweden after, as he claims, being abducted by Iranian forces to be then transported to Syria.

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