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Human Rights Defenders Face Increased Attacks in Afghanistan

The human rights community operating in Afghanistan is increasingly coming under attack from both the authorities and armed groups including the Taliban and Islamic state according to a briefing released by Amnesty International today.

The briefing, Defenceless Defenders: Attacks on Afghanistan’s Human Rights Community, highlights how human rights defenders and activists have faced intimidation, harassment, violence, been shot at and even killed in attacks that have gone uninvestigated by the Afghani authorities.

The findings of Amnesty come at a time of escalating conflict in Afghanistan, where last year saw more than 3,800 civilian deaths, including 927 children – the highest levels of civilian deaths on record. Last month was also the most violent in more than two years – despite US-Taliban talks in Doha, Qatar, in July, aimed at bringing an end to the 18-year conflict.

“This is one of the most dangerous moments to be a human rights activist in Afghanistan. Not only do they operate in one of the most hazardous environments, but they face threats from both the government and armed groups”
— Omar Waraich, Deputy South Asia Director at Amnesty International

The report, which is based on interviews with activists in Afghanistan, concluded that attacks and acts of intimidation are not confined to a geographic area and are commonplace across the country, by both state and non-state actors. Activists are often accused of subverting religious and cultural traditions.

Human rights activists in Afghanistan claim that in many cases, Government officials do not believe complaints brought forward and instead accuse them of fabricating their claims. One human rights defender was told to buy a gun and “protect himself” when he went to the authorities after being chased and shot near his home.

In September 2016, Khalil Parsa, a human rights activist was shot seven times on his way home. The attack was the culmination of a series of threats, warning him to stop his human rights work. Upon reporting these threats to the National Directorate of Security, Parsa was merely told to inform the security agencies the next time an incident happens. After leaving the country to seek safety elsewhere, he was informed that the government would not be investigating the attack against him.

“I should say that there is no trust that we would pass some of the issues to the government. There is no trust. We understood that we would not be protected. Therefore, it was needed that we would retreat a bit”
— Anonymous, Human Rights Defender in Afghanistan

In December 2016, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani vowed to protect the rights of human rights defenders and activists, telling a conference hosted by Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), “Protection of human rights defenders is the sole responsibility of my government and its legislative and judicial branches”.

However, three years later – and far this commitment has not been upheld – the government itself has been responsible for the intimidation, harassment and threats against human rights defenders and activists.

In June 2016, the Afghan authorities deployed excessive force in Kabul’s Zanbaq Square to crush a protest against civilian casualties in the conflict. In May 2017, ahead of a review by the UN Committee against Torture looking into Afghanistan’s record on torture, a civil society group was forced to remove the names of senior government officials mentioned in a “shadow report” before they submit it.

These acts by Afghani authorities, as well as their inaction in the cases of non-state attacks, represent why human rights activists in Afghanistan have no trust in their government protecting them.

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