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Afghanistan: Election pains point to ailing state

Afghanistan: Election pains point to ailing state

The great pains Afghanistan is going through in holding elections -- registration officers killed, voters intimidated -- are symptoms of the wider turmoil in the country, according to an Amnesty International research mission.

"The act of holding elections has been held up by some parties as a sign of Afghanistan's recovery," said Ingrid Massage, Asia director at Amnesty International. "This could not be further from the truth: outside Kabul the situation for the Afghan people has been rapidly deteriorating over the last few months."

The researchers found the climate of fear and insecurity which has blighted the election process is equally affecting the everyday lives of the Afghan people, particularly women. Lawlessness is rife: most Afghans have no access to justice because the judiciary is largely ignorant of national law. Armed groups in effect rule most of the country; in the central highlands they force farmers to grow opium.

"Half the population -- women -- face systematic and widespread violence," said Ms Massage. "Everywhere they went our researchers heard that women were afraid even to leave their homes, in case they were abducted. A significant number of the women we met in prisons were in there for their own protection rather than as a punishment."

In one case, Dina, a human rights activist, was subjected to a drive-by acid attack four days before being interviewed by Amnesty International. Dina had been vocal against forced marriages in east Afghanistan. She was waiting for a shuttle-bus outside her home in Kabul when three men pulled up in a car. One jumped out and threw acid at her, burning her neck. Asked whether she would continue her work after the attack, Dina replied, "I will have to, there is no-one else to work on human rights violations against women. Who else is there?"

Particularly shocking was the prevailing ignorance of the country's laws among judges and lawyers. One appeal judge in Kandahar was not able to point to the law which made running away from one's husband a crime. Other legal professionals in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif were similarly caught out. Yet many of the women the researchers interviewed in prison had been convicted on this very charge.

"If even judges are unsure of the statutory code, how can ordinary women hope to seek justice for the widespread cases of violence against them?" said Ms Massage.

One woman in Kandahar, Fatima, told how she had been abducted at the age of seven by a member of an armed group, Hamid, and taken to Pakistan. Hamid regularly beat her and abused her, and she had three children by him by the time she was twenty. Fatima retuned to Afghanistan in July. She was in prison when the researchers met her, having been accused of trying to kill Hamid with the help of a male neighbour. She had been detained without charge for the last two months because the prosecutor could not decide what to charge her with. He was considering charging her with adultery because Hamid had also accused her of this. The only evidence against Fatima was the word of Hamid. Yet despite the years of abuse she had suffered at his hands, there was no question of Hamid being prosecuted.

"From the waist down, a woman is the property of a man," said a judge interviewed in Kandahar.

As well as lacking basic legal skills, the judiciary is ineffective, corrupt and susceptible to intimidation from armed groups. The national army and police remain fledgling organizations and are suspected of committing human rights violations.

Poverty and insecurity are making many fathers force their daughters into early marriage rather than allowing them go into higher education. The dowry and their daughters' safety are both factors in such decisions.

One case reported to Amnesty International involved a 19-year-old woman, Zainab, who was forced to marry when she was 16. On her first day of married life her husband slapped her; from then on he regularly beat her up and mentally tortured her. Zainab lived under virtual house arrest for a year and a half, and was only rarely allowed to see her family. Her husband continued to beat her even when she became pregnant, and she miscarried her first baby. Despite the beatings Zainab gave birth to a second child. After her husband threw their three-month-old baby across the room, Zainab decided she could take no more, and ran away to her family. When her husband pursued her and threatened to kill the baby Zainab went back to him for a while. She is now back with her family, but feels she has nowhere to turn for help: her relatives want her to go back to her husband.

"Women are treated worse than dogs," said one woman interviewed in Kabul.

Amnesty International urges the Afghan government and donor countries to increase security throughout Afghanistan, and to consider extending the mandate of the international security assistance force to this end. The criminal justice system must continue to be reformed and the rule of law strengthened massively. Training projects for judges and lawyers outside Kabul should be started as a matter of urgency. The police, judiciary, and government officials should all be trained on protecting women's rights.


An Amnesty International research team spent a month in Afghanistan, visiting Kabul, Herat, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif from 22 August to 17 September. The team examined particularly the situation of women and their access to justice.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees.

Further information on human rights in Afghanistan:

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