Political Landscape

AAN Q&A: Tents and Bullets – the crackdown on the Kabul protests


10 June 2017, outside one of several protest tents -- this one on 40 Metre Road near the Taimani Project -- that were erected on main roads around Kabul in response to both a truck bombing near the German Embassy that killed 150 and wounded as many as 500 as well as the police response to demonstrations that followed in which several protestors were killed. The last tent was removed three weeks after it was erected. Credit: Andrew Quilty for AAN

10 June 2017, outside one of several protest tents -- this one on 40 Metre Road near the Taimani Project -- that were erected on main roads around Kabul in response to both a truck bombing near the German Embassy that killed 150 and wounded as many as 500 as well as the police response to demonstrations that followed in which several protestors were killed. The last tent was removed three weeks after it was erected. Credit: Andrew Quilty for AAN

The last of at least seven tents that protestors had set up in Kabul – after the horrific 31 May bomb attack and in protest against police brutality used during a march they organised on 2 June 2017 – has been removed. Afghan police forces dismantled it late in the evening of Monday, 19 June 2017. This triggered a new episode of violence as protestors clashed with police and the latter allegedly used live ammunition. At least one person was killed and six others wounded. In five questions and answers, the AAN team looks at who the protestors are, what their demands were and how they changed, the government’s response, the protests’ impact on day-to-day life in Kabul and whether the protests are likely to continue.  

  1. Reminder: What was the protest about and how did this change?

The trigger for the protest was the lethal truck bomb near Kabul’s Zanbaq junction on 31 May 2017 (see AAN’s dispatches here and here).This sparked off a peaceful anti-violence vigil on 1 June. Civil society activists were asking for justice for the victims and reform of the security sector. Still no group has taken responsibility for the carnage.

Simultaneously, a social media campaign started with the aim of organising a mass demonstration a day later. The demonstration slogan was “khasta az marg, ba so-ye Arg” – “tired of death [by terrorist attacks], forward to the Arg,” the presidential palace. Uncertain about this slogan (but also about the effectiveness of the protest), representatives of some civil society organisations, such as The Joint Working Group of Civil Society Organisations (an umbrella for around 25 organisations that had participated in the 1 June vigil), came together on the evening of the same day to discuss whether to take part in the planned protest march.

The march took place in the morning of 2 June 2017 with hundreds of protestors from different groups and affiliations. They condemned the attack and accused the government of failing to provide security for the population. As the participants marched towards the presidential palace, they were stopped by security forces, who used live ammunition killing at least six protesters. Around 30 were wounded. Among those killed was Salem Ezadyar, the son of a leading Jamiat politician, Muhammad Alam Ezadyar.

In the early evening of 2 June, some of the demonstrators started setting up tents as a protest against the police brutality. The first one, close to the explosion site, belonged to civil society activists. A new group of protestors with more radical demands followed their example a few hours later, and set up a tent at nearby Sherpur Square in front of the Emergency Hospital. Even after the hospital staff complained about being “threatened” by those protestors, they remained there.

A statement issued on 3 June 2017 by the protestors added more demands: It urged the international community to recognise the 31 May bombing as a crime against humanity and to act firmly against local and foreign supporters of terrorism. It demanded the resignation of the president and the chief executive, the dismissal of the national security adviser, the head of the intelligence and the minister of interior as well as the identification of the perpetrators of the 2 June police shooting, naming the police units involved as

The 3 June terrorist attack at the Ezadyar burial brought in more protestors who were angry about these killings. They accused the government again of not having taken sufficient security measures.

There were no new street marches after that. But 5 June saw the establishment of more protest tents. Three days later, their number had reached seven, straddling an area from Kart-e Parwan, to the northwest of Shahr-e Naw (the ‘New City’) and Pul-e Artal in the southwest at Kabul river, to Shahid Square to the east near the airport. Each tent was occupied by a few dozen people, with numbers fluctuating. Tents were also pitched in a number of provinces such as Baghlan and Takhar. A week later, however, the protestors in Kabul dismantled six of seven tents. Only the one erected first, at Sherpur Square, remained in place – until it was forcefully removed by security forces in the night of 19/20 June 2017.

During this police operation, again shots were fired. A 23-year-old was killed who is said to have been a supporter of Chief Executive Abdullah during the 2014 presidential elections and close to him. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission released a statement expressing concern about the “continuation of violence by security forces against those on the sit-in” and called the police action “violent [and] illegal [. . .]. The coincidence of this incident with the previous president’s meeting with civil activists seriously puts to test the government’s genuine will to respect human rights and the basic rights and freedoms of the citizens.”

Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said what happened during the night of 19 June “shocked the people” and announced that “legal actions” will be taken after the completion of an investigation. Later that day, the president’s office issued a statement expressing sorrow about the killing and wounding of protestors. It further said that the security forces had taken action based on the “efforts of parliamentarians [who has sent a delegation – see below] and demand of Kabul residents from different walks of life.” A joint delegation of the Ministry of Interior (MoI), the National Directorate for Security (NDS) and the Attorney General Office (AGO) was tasked with investigating the killing.

Nevertheless, the MoI claimed at a press conference held on Thursday, 22 June, that police had no weapons while removing the protestors’ last tent in Kabul and carried only sticks and shields. AAN staff, however, saw police carrying firearms near where the tent was dismantled on 21 June. 

  1. Who are the protesters?

Initially the protests were leaderless. There was no steering committee, and various groups and individuals, seemingly mobilised via a social media campaign, joined the street protests with a variety of slogans. The initial protestors from the civil society sector called for justice and reform. Other protestors demanded the resignation of the president, the chief executive and the leaders of security sector and called for an interim government. The 2 June protests were joined by groups with unrelated issues, including some who protested against the peace deal with Hezb-e Islami.

Soon after the march started, a group from Khairkhana, a neighbourhood in northern Kabul, joined the demonstration. They included former Ghani advisor and leading Jamiati Ahmad Zia Massud and Latif Pedram, leader of a small Tajik ethnocentric party. Photos on social media seemed to show that some of them were carrying arms. Following this, non-Tajik protesters started leaving the site while the protests turned more violent, and the police started shooting at the demonstrators.

Two groups seemed to feature at the core of the protests: members of a social and cultural association that goes under the name of “Khorasanian” and members of “Jombesh-e Guzar” (Transition Movement). The Khorasanian are young Tajiks who promote ancient Persian traditions and the use of Persian (Dari) words instead of Arabic and Pashto loanwords in their language in a bid to counter what they see as Pashto domination in official terminology. Their name refers to the historical Persian-speaking region to the northwest of the Hindukush and used as an alternative to “Afghanistan.” (1) Jombesh-e Guzar announced its existence on 11 May 2017 and its aim as “facilitating transition to a desired political situation.”

The Transition Movement’s leadership seems to overlap with that of the Khorasanian. They are also involved in party politics and in particular have relations with Jamiat-e Islami (Jamiat itself has an ethnocentric Tajik strand). But that does not mean that their agendas are identical or that the Khorasanian do Jamiat’s bidding. This group, however, shared the more radical demands directed against the government, which had been articulated even before the protests, by Jamiat leaders such as Ismail Khan and Zia Massud (see the latter’s 28 April 2017 Facebook post here).

The protestors who erected their tent at the Emergency Hospital, were joined by Massud and Pedram representatives. Leaders of Jombesh-e Roshnayi – prior to these events the most visible protest movement (more here) – also arrived at Sherpur Square to speak with the demonstrators. But except for condemning the police violence in a statement, they avoided publicly joining the protests during the following days. After the terrorist attack at Ezadyar’s burial, more protestors joined in, now mainly Jamiati activists angry about the killing of their fellow party members. They brought to the protests the party’s long-standing demand of a “full implementation” of the National Unity Government agreement, mainly a demand for a better share in the allocation of government positions (on this conflict, AAN analysis here).

As early as 3 June, some of the protestors started using a new name, “Rastakhez-e Taghir” (“Resurrection” or “Uprising for Change), on social media in an attempt to create an umbrella ‘brand’ for the protests. Later, they selected purple as their colour, wearing purple headbands, for example. One of the movement leaders, Barna Salehi, told AAN on 21 June 2017 that the movement had a central committee comprised of 45 members and several sub-committees.

Similar to the individual groups participating, the people behind the movement are young Tajiks, mostly unemployed and restless, among them a few Kabul University students or recent graduates who are very articulate, some with “Jamiat connections,” a close observer of the events told AAN. These activists adopted an ‘all ethnicities against the government’ rhetoric, trying to make the movement look larger than it is, the observer added. The same might be the case with all the different groups and names that appeared in the context of the protests, often on social media only.

Leading activists of the movement, nevertheless, rejected the Jamiat link. In their statement on 3 June 2017 they insisted that they had no affiliation with any political party. Already mentioned Barna Salehi and Asef Ashna (a former deputy spokesperson to the chief executive – he resigned because of “government incompetency” during the 2015 Zabul Seven protest told AAN that the movement was separate from Jamiat and that the latter’s involvement was only triggered by the attack at the Ezadyar funeral. That Jamiat raised similar demands did not mean that the movement was part of Jamiat, members told AAN. Salehi added, though, that the movement welcomed Jamiat’s (and other political groups’) support for its demands, pointing to Pedram’s National Congress Party and the New National Front of Afghanistan led by the former minister of finance and economy Anwar-ul Haq Ahadi. (Ahadi’s front had demanded for many months that the government step down in favour of an interim government (See AAN’s report here).

On its part, Jamiat disassociated itself from the protestors, calling them “civil society groups and ordinary civilians alike” who “exercised their civic rights and held peaceful demonstrations over the inability of security officials to ensure the safety and security of the people” in the wake of “tragic and unprecedented attack on the 5th day of the Holy month of Ramadan.”

Nonetheless, on 13 June 2017, the Panjshir Mujahedin Council – from a core Jamiat stronghold – announced its support for the movement.

Protests in its support were also organised in some provinces like Badakhshan as well as by the Afghan diaspora in a variety of countries, like the USA, the UK (see here) and Belgium.

  1. What was the government’s response on the protestors’ demands?

After the 3 June attacks, both the president’s office and the chief executive announced that the government was ready for negotiations at any level. The president even emphasised that he was ready to hear the protestors’ legitimate demands and did not take a public position against the protestors. According to Asef Ashna, the protestors put forward a number of demands, including the suspension of officials in the security sector whom they suspected of ordering violence against protestors, and live media coverage of the negotiations. The presidential office did not accept the latter demand.

The president, however, did not talk to the protestors directly. Instead he met 3,000 individuals from various groups such as the private sector, civil society, political parties and academia. His office published the highlights of these meetings on 11 June, mainly focusing on participants’ statements against the tent sit-ins.

The protestors suspected that the people meeting the president were handpicked to support his position. Ashna said this led the negotiation process “astray.”

Some government representatives took an even stronger stance. NDS chief Massum Stanakzai, who had been summoned by the Meshrano Jirga on 18 June 2017 for a hearing about the incidents, told the senators that the 2 June protest had not been organised in accordance with the law. Earlier, Kabul Garrison commander Gul Nabi Ahmadzai, on 7 June 2017, told the BBC that the 2 June demonstrators were “rioting,” that people “rose up, without informing the police, without any notice, without a leader, goals and demands being known” and “converged on the [presidential palace].” He also denied that forces under his command shot at the civilians and said that the attorney general should probe how the six protestors got killed. (2)

On 7 June 2017, the Wolesi Jirga of the parliament formed a commission comprised of its administrative board and one MP from each of the 34 provinces (Kabul had three). The commission met the president and the chief executive as well as, at the parliament, representatives of the protestors. On 12 June 2017, the commission presented a “Plan for Consolidation of National Unity and Bringing About Political Accord” that was approved by the Wolesi Jirga’s plenary session on the same day. It responded to some demands of the protestors, for example by calling for the investigation and punishment of the perpetrators of both the terrorist attacks and of police violence in Kabul.

A day before the Wolesi Jirga’s approval of this plan, 11 June 2017, the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) suspended Ahmadzai, the commander of the Kabul Garrison, and Kabul police chief Hassan Shah Frogh from their duties. AGO spokesman Jamshid Rasuli called this step a sign that “a transparent investigation” into the police violence was under way. The president’s office welcomed the AGO’s decision.

The government’s position on the protests was also supported by several political parties – including Atmar’s Rights and Justice Party, the National Linkage Party headed by Ismaili leader Sayyed Mansur Naderi and, more importantly, the leader of Hezb-e Islami, Hekmatyar who, thereby, gave a public sign of loyalty to the government and the peace deal he had concluded with it in 2016.

  1. What was the protests’ impact on daily life in Kabul?

The installation of the tents by the protestors and the roadblocks erected around them by the government (which wanted to prevent more marches toward the Arg) created a massive traffic jam that paralysed day-to-day life in central parts of the city. (One tent blocked lanes on a major road leading from the airport to the western parts of the city and the tent in the Pul-e Artal area created a bottleneck between the western and central parts of Kabul.) Thus, government employees and others working in the affected areas were stuck for hours, reducing the already shortened Ramadan office time.

Realising (but not publicly admitting to) growing public frustration with the blockades, the protesters dismantled most of their tents. They stated they did so “out of respect [for] the mediation [efforts] of some parliamentarians [. . .] and to honour the holy month of Ramadan.” Barna Salehi confirmed to AAN that the Wolesi Jirga commission had asked the movement to remove its tents. The movement, however, decided to keep its “central” tent at the Sherpur junction.

  1. Will the protests continue, and why?

With the removal of their last tent in Kabul in the night between 19 to 20 June, the protestors are off the streets of the capital for the time being. But as the security forces resorted to force for the second time during the tent removal and killed another protestor (the protestors claim a second person had been killed), (3) bringing the number of those killed between 2 and 19 June to seven, a sense of victimhood was created among the protestors, on which the movement may capitalise.

At the moment, a lot of anger and talks about “the martyrs” and the “deadliest crackdown” in the post-Taleban time are being ventilated on social media,. This seems to be designed to stir up emotions. In a statement of 20 June 2017, leaders of the protest movement announced that they “will not surrender to tyranny and repression and [will] continue to struggle peacefully and lawfully for litigation and justice to our shed blood and to achieve our rightful and just demands.” (see here and a media report about this here)

Also, rumours are that Jamiat will organise another huge demonstration after the Eid holidays (sometime after 25 June). Jamiat leader Salahuddin Rabbani has continued to reach out to various political party leaders such as Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, the head of the pro-Abdullah faction of Hezb-e Islami, and deputy chief executive Muhammad Mohaqeq of one (mainly Hazara) Hezb-e Wahdat faction. The Jamiat mainstream represented by him, however, is not calling for the government to step down, as more radical voices in the party and among the young protestors are, but is pushing to strengthen the party’s position within the government vis-à-vis the president’s camp and its growingly assertive arch-rival, Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami.

 

 

(1) For example, they want to replace Pashto terms such as saranwal (prosecutor) with dadsetan and pohantun (university) with daneshgah and Arabic terms such as mahkama (court) with dadgah. Their aim is to protect traditions such as Yalda night, Nawruz and Chaharshanba-ye Sori.

– which go back to pre-Islamic times – that have increasingly been challenged not only by the Taleban but also by parts of the clergy as ‘un-Islamic’ (see AAN analysis here).

(2) For background, this is what the Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says in its 2010 “Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly”:

1.3 Only peaceful assemblies are protected. An assembly should be deemed peaceful if its organizers have professed peaceful intentions and the conduct of the assembly is non-violent. The term “peaceful” should be interpreted to include conduct that may annoy or give offence, and even conduct that temporarily hinders, impedes or obstructs the activities of third parties.

3.4 “Time, place and manner” restrictions. A wide spectrum of possible restrictions that do not interfere with the message communicated is available to the regulatory authority. Reasonable alternatives should be offered if any restrictions are imposed on the time, place or manner of an assembly.

3.5 “Sight and sound”. Public assemblies are held to convey a message to a particular target person, group or organization. Therefore, as a general rule, assemblies should be facilitated within “sight and sound” of their target audience.

(3) They claim the victim was a 14-year-old boy who was at the tent with his father and had been run over by a police vehicle.

 

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape