Wave of Attacks on Herat Candidates

Murder, kidnap and intimidation of political activists has marred the run-up to the September 18 parliamentary election in Afghanistan’s western Herat province.

As candidates accuse police of failing to ensure their safety, security officials say they lack the resources needed to protect all 150 parliamentary hopefuls in the province, especially when campaigning takes place in remote districts.

In worst incident so far, five members of the campaign team of Herat lawmaker Fouzia Gilani – four members of her family and a driver – were killed in the district of Adrasken, south of Herat city

Eyewitness Akhter Mohammad, 40, said that the bodies were found on 29 August, their hands tied with scarves and with gunshot wounds to their heads, hands and feet.

The dead had been among ten members of Gilani’s campaign team kidnapped three days earlier. The five others were later released.

Following the murders, Taleban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi told IWPR that his group was responsible, while Gilani accused the security forces of inefficiency and negligence.

“The police forces are just bystanders in such incidents,” she told a press conference, saying that on several occasions she had asked the Herat security authorities and the interior ministry to help secure the release of her campaign staff, but to no avail.

“I knew the location where these five people were being kept,” she said. “I asked the security authorities to assign me a group of police and some vehicles so that I’d be able to get them released, but they refused to do so.”

(For more on the particular difficult task facing women in this election, see Uphill Struggle for Female Candidates in Herat.)

Police in Herat denied they were at fault.

General Ikramuddin Yawar, the police commander for Afghanistan’s western zone, told IWPR that his forces had asked candidates to always let them know if they were campaigning in remote areas. He said all the attacks so far involved individuals who had failed to do this.

“The responsibility therefore lies with them, not the security authorities,” he said.

Other attacks in the run-up to the election include an incident in which armed men fired on members of the team of candidate Abdul Hadi Jamshidi as he campaigned in his native district of Kushk-e-Rabat Sangi, north of Herat city, on August 22. Jamshidi’s brother was killed and two of his armed guards injured.

Jamshidi told IWPR that the attack was orchestrated by Taleban fighters based in the area.

“Some time ago, I was informed by local elders that the Taleban had decided during a meeting that they were going to kill me during the campaign,” he said.

Jamshidi alleges that he shared this intelligence with the security agencies but that they took no action.

In another case, parliamentary candidate Abdul Manan Nurzai was shot dead on the way from his office to the mosque by two men riding on motorcycles.

Shindand district chief Lal Mohammad Omerzai said that police had opened an investigation into the August 28 shooting, but that he had no further information for the moment.

Nurzai’s nephew Abdul Razaq said his uncle had been killed because of the support he had won in Zirkoh, an area of Shindand largely controlled by the insurgents.

Another parliamentary candidate, Mohammad Yusuf Wakilzada, described how he was kidnapped together with two bodyguards on July 20 in the Gulran district of Herat province.

“The kidnappers held me for eight days, and I was released through the mediation of local elders,” he said.

Wakilzada said he was freed after the local elders gave guarantees to the kidnappers that he would stop campaigning in Gulran. He has closed his office there, but says he is still trying to campaign in more informal ways.

Most of the attacks on candidates and their teams have been attributed to the Taleban, as they attempt to derail the election.

“The opposition is trying to put pressure on the candidates and compel them to withdraw,” Mohammad Halim Taraki, a candidate whose office was bombed early on in the election campaign, said.

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, UNAMA, condemned the violence and called for the Afghan security forces to be on a heightened state of alert in the weeks running up to the vote.

The Independent Election Commission, IEC, also expressed concern about intimidation.

Awalurrahman Rodwal, head of the IEC office in Herat, said the commission always raised concerns about the safety of political activists during meetings with the security agencies.

While the IEC was keen for police to “do their best to create secure conditions”, Rodwal said candidates must also remember they were operating in an unstable environment.

A spokesman for the western policing zone, Abdul Rauf Ahmadi, said he was confident police would be able to put the right security measures in place on election day, while acknowledging that the force was spread rather thin at the moment.

“The security authorities have an appropriate programme to ensure election day is safe, based on plans made by the interior ministry,” he said.

Ahmadi said that while the police were responsible for protecting candidates, they had neither the manpower nor the equipment to guard all 150 of them as they campaigned in various parts of Herat province.

“Police accompany ten candidates to remote areas of Herat every day,” he said. “We don’t have enough resources, but despite that we accept that they have the right to complain, because they have suffered. We feel have a responsibility to accompany candidates if they ask us to do so.”

Not everyone is convinced by this argument.

“I don’t agree with the idea that if people inform the police when they’re going to remote areas, the problems will be solved,” Basir Nikzad, a political analyst in Herat, said. “It isn’t just in remote areas that the candidates face threats – they’re also confronted with them in Herat city.”