The resignation of the head of the secretariat of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), Zia ul-Haq Amarkhel, may just have saved the election – if it brings Dr Abdullah back into the process. In support of his demand (one of several) for Amarkhel to go, Abdullah had ceased cooperating with the IEC and his supporters had held street protests. Reacting to news of the resignation, he said the “door is now open to the commission”, but also that he would act in “support of the people’s rights”, a phrase he used previously to explain why he was asking his supporters to demonstrate. Today, UNAMA said it had facilitated a meeting between Abdullah and the IEC. Amarkhel’s resignation followed Abdullah’s release of a tape purporting to be a series of phone recordings of Amarkhel organising the rigging of the election. AAN’s Kate Clark, Obaid Ali and Borhan Osman, who have been listening to the tape, look at how much weight it gives to Abdullah’s claims of false play and how tape and resignation might affect what happens next (with input from Ehsan Qaane)."Make them understand they have to ... make the sheep fat and not bring them back thin." Part of one of the phone recordings that allegedly prove that the IEC's Zia ul-Haq Amarkhel ordered fraud in behalf of candidate Ashraf Ghani. Photo: Christine Roehrs
The tape released by Abdullah is a compendium of five different telephone conversations (for a transcript see the end of this dispatch) presented in a CD and online as audio, with English subtitles and related allegations appearing as text on the screen. He has not revealed who carried out the wiretapping. The recordings are of poor audio quality and are purportedly of Amarkhel, and in one case his assistant, Adam Khan Sirat, speaking to IEC officials in the provinces or members of the Ghani campaign team. Apart from ‘Sirat’, all those speaking are un-named, including the man alleged to be Amarkhel. Not every conversation mentions the elections, but all could feasibly be discussions among IEC staff. Four mention sheep – which need to be “fed till they are full” or “fattened” (1) or for people to be “introduced” to them. This is code, the Abdullah campaign contends, for the stuffing of ballot boxes. To give you a flavour of what The Guardian described as the ‘surrealism’ of the conversations, here is the end of the fourth, allegedly between Amarkhel and a senior IEC official from the south, ‘Mashal’:
A) Who sent the message?
M) The message that was sent by Mr Sirat. (allegedly, a reference to Amakhel’s assistant, Adam Khan Sirat)
A) (not v audible, but sounds like: did you meet directly and did you reach an agreement?)
A) What did you talk to him about?
M) I told him about (inaudible)… Find me people in those districts
A) It’s not only about one district, it’s six or seven districts. Contact the Baluch and other like-minded people over there and invite them.
M) (inaudible, but mentions Dilaram and Chahr Borjak)
A) Make them understand they have to place them properly, make the sheep fat, and not bring them back thin.
Accusations and resignation
Abdullah’s team had been threatening the release of a dossier ‘proving’ Amarkhel’s organisation of systematic fraud for weeks – Abdullah has contended that “industrial-scale fraud” was perpetrated through the IEC, also involving President Karzai and the ministry of interior. After his public demand for Amarkhel’s resignation (made at the end of the day of second round voting, 14 June), his withdrawal of observers from the IEC (17 June) and his launching of public protests (21 June), one piece of the ‘evidence’ against Amarkhel has finally been made public. Abdullah’s campaign manager, Baryalai Arsalai, alleged in a press conference it showed “Amarkhel has organized cheating and manipulated votes favouring one candidate” and that the IEC had conspired with “senior members of the government… they have organised rigging, cheating and manipulation.”
Events then moved swiftly. At a press conference the following day (23 June 2014) carried live on TV, Amarkhel resigned:
I do strongly reject these fake and baseless allegations. I believe in democracy and its value, my resignation is a precedent for the young generation of Afghanistan of how we make sacrifices for peace, stability and the rights of our citizens.
He had acted, he said, to “protect the election process, and so that Dr Abdullah Abdullah can put an end to his boycott and resume his relationship with the IEC.” He also made counter claims in what were clear references to Abdullah or his supporters, alleging he had received several proposals from “a certain presidential candidate” to get him over the 50 per cent threshold of total first round votes (making a runoff unnecessary) in exchange for money – he also said he had refused – and that some of the security commanders had been working in favour of “a presidential candidate.” The chair of the IEC, Yusef Nuristani, said they regretted Amarkhel’s resignation. “He was active, patriotic and full of energy…. There was no pressure on him to step down. He resigned for the benefit of the nation and the election.”
The IEC appeared to have addressed one other complaint of Abdullah’s. At Amarkhel’s resignation conference, Yusif Nuristani announced that the votes in five provinces, Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Nuristan and Ghor, would be subject to particular scrutiny. Abdullah has been particularly upset by the reported huge turnout in the first three provinces, saying it was evidence of massive fraud. Ashraf Ghani, on the other hand, said there had been an actual surge in support for him (see AAN analysis here). Abdullah’s on and off request for the United Nations to mediate was also accepted by all parties on 21 June.
Assessing the tape
The audio of the tape is poor and distorted and in many places inaudible – listening to it, we were not sure how the Abdullah team managed to understand it and produce a full transcript. It also appears to have been edited (several places but not all are mentioned in the annex). However, the conversations do not sound scripted; they are too random for that. These are clearly real people spontaneously talking.
As to the content of the tape, references are made to the IEC’s work in three of the conversations. All five have what sound to be legitimate discussions for the head of the IEC or his assistant to have on staffing and security before, in four of them, the discussion shifts to sheep:
Work bravely and make the sheep fully fat and bring them back. (Conversation 2)
That person I’m 100 per cent confident in. Only introduce the goats and sheep to him so that he takes them back to the mountain and brings them back full. (Conversation 5)
The speaker makes crude references to ethnic groups being needed as staff in particular provinces in ways which sound bad for the head of a national body – if that is who the speaker is. In the fourth conversation, for example, the speaker orders the other person to kick the current workers out of his office:
Recruit Uzbeks. Recruit Pashtuns. And remove these people… It’s a shame. They’re committing fraud again. Invite all polling centre managers. Recruit from among the Uzbeks as polling centre managers.
The man whom the Abdullah team alleges is Amarkhel does appear to be the same speaker throughout. Comparing the voice on the tape with Amarkhel giving an interview (for example here), it is not an obvious match. The voice on the tape has the right Pashto accent (a sort of generic standard, is not eastern or Kandahari or a dialect, although he lapses, perfectly naturally, into Kandahari when talking to a southerner). It is pitched higher and is harsher and faster than the public voice of Amarkhel. How the speaker expresses himself is also tougher. These differences could be due to distortion in the recording or differences in register – one does not speak to a colleague or subordinate in the same way as one addresses a TV interviewer. Or it might not be the same man speaking.
From the content, it looks to be the recordings of persons at the IEC organizing something clandestinely, using (rather poor) code to try to hide their tracks. Whether it is Amarkhel is not verifiable from the voice; one would need to know how the conversations were recorded.
The source of the recordings
The Abdullah team has maintained a stony silence on the source of the recordings, presumably because it is illegal under the Afghan constitution to tap phones (article 37). (2) Under the Criminal Procedural Code, there are exceptions for particular crimes and when the tapping has been requested by a prosecutor and ordered by a judge (3). Yet even if there had been authorisation (possible, maybe, under the anti-corruption law (4)), it would be extremely contentious for a state body to have recorded the conversations of such a senior official. Moreover, if carried out by the the National Directorate of Security (NDS) or other state agency, even if with a court order, this would not look like an operation to investigate fraud, but a political favour from old networks within the state for their political ally. This would be deeply troubling, showing how politically fragmented state agencies still are, despite efforts to reform them. Because of the possible sourcing, releasing the tape was, in itself, an action that could have been very destabilizing.
Abdullah’s calls for Amarkhel to be investigated would seem reasonable, but it is difficult to see how this could be done – whether by the Independent Election Complaints Commission or the legal prosecution he has demanded – unless there is other evidence of wrongdoing or he releases the source of the recordings. It is hard to see how the tape could be admissible in court.
The other issue to be looked into is the timing of the release. The second conversation appears to have been recorded between the first and second round. The others could have been before the first or the second round. Unless the tapes were only passed on to Abdullah after the second round of voting, there is a question of why he waited to release it, believing, as he says he does, that it is evidence of a large-scale conspiracy to defraud the electorate. Was he cynically waiting to see if it was needed, politically? Or (more charitably), was he hoping the election would go ‘better’, so he would not need to risk delegitimising the election and the next leader?
The provenance of the tape is unverified and probably – without the source being known – unverifiable. As such, it actually says nothing about the alleged Amarkhel/IEC conspiracy. In terms of content, it also does not touch at all on Abdullah’s wider contention that president was also involved in the “industrial-scale” fraud. Neither does it point, as Baryalai asserted when he introduced the tape, to the involvement of “senior members of the government.” It seems likely, given the current political polarisation in the country, that supporters of Abdullah will claim it as evidence of fraud and those of Ghani dismiss it as fake. However, whatever the rights and wrongs of the Amarkhel case, including whether he went as a guilty man or necessary sacrifice to bring Abdullah back, has somehow become less important now. His resignation has ‘moved the conversation on’ to what happens next.
After Amarkhel’s resignation, the UN made a very interesting statement, urging everyone to re-engage with the electoral process. It noted that Amarkhel had administered a “better managed and more advanced” election than previous ones and recognised, “with appreciation,” that he had put the national interests before his own by seeking “to remove any cause of distrust” in the electoral process:
UNAMA recognizes the resignation as a step that helps protect Afghanistan’s historic political transition and contributes to an orderly and timely electoral process under the country’s legal and institutional framework and through its mandated electoral institutions and their procedures.
It also said:
Following the resignation, the Mission calls on the Presidential candidates to fully re-enter the electoral process, cooperate with the electoral institutions and respect their decisions.
Earlier (21 June 2014), when accepting a request for the UN to play a mediating role to try to resolve the political impasse, the Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for the country, Nicholas Haysom, had said that part of the UN’s message to the two candidates and their teams was, “there will be a winner and there will be a loser and what we expect of the candidates is to exhibit statesmanship, not gamesmanship.”
It all looked like a choreographed attempt to bring Abdullah back into the electoral fold – not only Amarkhel’s resignation, but also the IEC’s public announcement on closely scrutinising the ballots of five provinces Abdullah was particularly concerned about and the relatively strong words from the UN that there is no alternative to working with the current electoral institutions.
As for Abdullah, he learned of Amarkhel’s resignation during his own press conference, as it was being carried live on television, when he was given a note by an aide. He welcomed Amarkhel’s departure: “The door is now open to talk to the commission. Our attitude will be responsible in the coming days and weeks. But it will be in support of the people’s rights.” Using the phrase, ‘the people’s rights’, in effect, still threatens protests and continuing disengagement: he has used it before, for example, when calling on people to protest. However, he has now met the IEC in an encounter facilitated by UNAMA which, it said had allowed “for an exchange of views and included all of the Commissioners and Dr. Abdullah and his electoral advisers.”
Amarkhel’s departure may represent for Dr Abdullah either the absolute minimum needed to satisfy his legitimate demands or a successful use of brinkmanship to force changes in procedures for purely political ends (or both). From his public statements, it is not clear yet what path Abdullah will now take – whether he will see this as a first scalp and demand more changes to how the count is being run or come back mollified. His assertion from the beginning of the campaign that “my only rival is fraud” suggests the troubled path of the 2014 Afghan election is yet far from over.
AAN translation of the taped conversations released by Dr Abdullah’s team
Alleged information appearing as text on the CD is in square brackets 
Conversation 1: [Amarkhel] (A) and [member of Ghani team] (B)
A) How are you? How’s the work?
B) It’s OK. We are busy with Ghazni, the governor is here (inaudible, but mentions “night”)
A) What is the governor doing here in Kabul?
B) He’s just come from somewhere (appears to be edited).
A) Tell him to go there and work and tell the police chief to work (appears to be edited).
B) Yes, we discussed this.
A) What did he say?
B) We talked with the boss. The issue of concern, the new list that has been given, the centres that would be closed.
A) No, I talked with the police chief yesterday. Where is he now?
B) I have concerns about that issue.
A) I’ve told (them) to summon the police chief. And what is Popal doing? They are sitting all the day with Ashraf Ghani. Meeting him or meeting me is important? It is not good that all day you’re going after Ghani.
A) You’re busy talking about yourself all the day. Have you worked any day?
B) Exactly, exactly
A) And another issue, some of the people you’ve introduced to me are weak people. Please introduce some competent people. In Badakshan, I need three strong people: introduce one from the Uzbeks, one Ismaeli.
B) I have tasked someone about the Ismaelis.
A) Be in touch with them. They are such people that when you call them, they say, “For what purpose have you called me?” They don’t have a clue why I call them. Make them understand and tell them you have to do this, you have to do that and make the sheep fat.
B) They do understand and know what to do, but we can’t tell them everything through a phone conversation.
A) Call them from a different number and invite them here. It is only a day trip from Badakhshan. They would arrive by evening and could go back the next morning.
A) It’s not an easy thing to do. We shouldn’t be relaxed.
B) OK. When I see Mr Popal now, I will make a plan with them and I will let you know.
A) Brother, these things are very important. There’s no confidence. They are weak. These people are in meetings all day. What do they do in the meetings? It is a political committee of three people who should be doing their own job. The job of each person is clear.
A) They are doing all ceremonial things, holding handkerchiefs to their noses all day.
Conversation 2: [Amarkhel] (A) with [Safi, IEC senior staff member in Laghman] (C)
A) Have you brought any changes? Things are running very slow in Nangrahar (corrects himself), Laghman.
C) No, I have made three people from the list Mr Sirat sent me DFCs. (inaudible)
A) Oh, brother call them and tell them to meet me. It is important. Take from him all the goats and sheep and make all the work perfect.
C) OK, OK. Does the person from abroad, introduced by Mr Sirat come? Should I meet him as well?
A) Yes, meet him. He’s coming for that purpose. Make a precise plan. Work bravely and make the sheep fully fat and bring them back.
C) I have another important issue to discuss. (inaudible: – sounds like he is saying: “sites … in this round… I sat with the commander (could be police chief) last night ….”)
A) (inaudible, but talking about threats). Close all of them. Who is the commander?
C) (inaudible, but mentions … [deputy] Kabul police chief. ) He’s from Chaparhar (in Nangrahar). He’s a nice guy.
A) SMS me the commander’s number. Give it to Sirat [Amarkhel’s assistant].
(Inaudible, sounds like ending the conversation)
Conversation 3: [Amarkhel] (A) with Mashal [IEC senior staff member from the South] (D)
A) (inaudible greeting) Mr Guldar/Gulzar, how are you? (sounds like an edit) Mashal jan. How is work going, dear?
D) I’ve turned nights and days into one.
A) Is your work OK?
D) Yes, trust me. It’s going well.
A) Did you meet the guests I sent you?
D) Up to now, they haven’t come yet. I talked about this with Mr Sirat yesterday.
A) Today, someone sent you a text message: please meet him. Coordinate with Mr Sultani.
D) I myself called Mr Sultani. He sent a message and I met him.
A) Who sent the message?
D) The message that was sent by Mr Sirat.
A) (not v audible, sounds like: did you meet directly and did you reach an agreement?)
A) What did you talk to him about?
D) I told him about (inaudible)… Find me people in those districts
A) It’s not only about one district, it’s six or seven districts. Contact the Baluch and other like-minded people over there and invite them.
D) (inaudible, but mentions Dilaram and Char Borja
A) Make them understand they have to place them properly, make the sheep fat and not to bring them back thin.
Conversation 4: [Amerkhel] (A) with [IEC official in Faryab] (E)
A) How is work going, brother?
A) What’s the problem?
E) Here inside the office, the other people…
A) Why don’t you fix it? Take a stick and kick them all out.
E) (inaudible, but mentions “the way”)
A) Change them all. Recruit Uzbeks. Recruit Pashtuns. And remove these people… It’s a shame. They’re committing fraud again. Invite all polling centre managers. Recruit from among the Uzbeks as polling centre managers. Listen.
Conversation 5: [Adam Khan] Sirat [Amarkhel’s executive assistant] (F) with un-named [senior member of Ghani’s campaign team from Nangrahar] (G) [Text on the CD says it was recorded two weeks before the runoff]
F) Hello boss, salaam. Are you OK? I’m Sirat. I don’t think my number is registered in your phone.
G) I do have it, but your other number.
F) Save this number, too. I use cheap networks. (laughs) These days, sheep and goats have become expensive.
G) Next time, you send me a message and I’ll call you, it’s better.
F) I texted you yesterday.
G) The things you have told me yesterday have been done. (inaudible) I didn’t understand that (inaudible)… they’re also in Laghman and Dara-ye Nur, I mean in Nuristan…
F) Introduce the goats and sheep to them.
G) Look, the person who came, I met him. He’s a strong man.
F) Yes, he’s an intelligent man.
G) The other person who works here in our village, he is a noble person but not a competent person. We have talked to him. There’s no doubt he’s a very noble person. The person who’s come to Nuristan (inaudible)
F (interrupts) The person who has been sent, he should be worked with. That is the solution. It doesn’t have another solution because he’s a nephew of the other man… (inaudible) [text on CD alleges this is IEC chairman, Yusif Nuristani]. He knows how to deal with things, given they’re from the same village. If he’s worked with a lot, he will improve.
G) So when Badr comes to me…
F) (interrupts) Badr has already come to you. Then I would call him. Don’t touch the other person, but work with this person. They know each other, they are from the same village. He’s the nephew of the man. If you (inaudible) things would go in another direction.
G) What about Laghman?
F) That person I’m 100 per cent confident in. Only introduce the goats and sheep to him so that he takes them back to the mountain and brings them back full.
G) Tell him to send me a message and I will call him. There are people there who are available. Tell him wherever he wants me, send a message and I’ll be there.
(1) The two Pashto words used in the conversations are (as orders): marey kra! – feed (a person or animal until they are full)! and chaghy kra! – fatten! Neither would be used in relation to ballot boxes. Abdullah’s campaign on the CD translated this as ‘stuff!’ which works nicely, in English, with both sheep and ballot boxes and the word ‘was picked up and used by most of the English media.
(2) Article 37 of the Afghan constitution
Freedom and confidentiality of correspondence, as well as communications of individuals, whether in the form of a letter or via telephone, telegraph, as well as other means, shall be secure from intrusion. The state shall not have the right to inspect personal correspondence and communications, unless authorized by provisions of the law.
(3) Afghan Criminal Code (translated by PAE’s Justice Sector Support Programme, emailed to AAN.
Chapter 7: Covert Surveillance Measures
Legitimacy of Covert Surveillance Measures
(1) Covert Surveillance measures could be applied to detect crimes stipulated in article 113 of this law and to collect evidence.
(2) Covert Surveillance measures are as follows:
1. Listening (wiretap), inspecting, or taping the suspect’s and the accused person’s conversations made through phone, computer, internet and other communication and information technology equipment and collecting information about location, sources, distance, route, time, date, amount, and length of conversation and type of communication.
2. Covert electronic surveillance or recording conversations and activities of individuals in private houses and residences and public spaces.
3. Inspecting financial transactions which take place in banks or other financial and business institutions.
4. Inspecting the official letters, packages, containers and parcels including inspecting the material and technical tools.
5. Allowing the transfer and transit (controlled delivery) of illegal or suspected consignments from Afghanistan territory to one or more countries, with knowledge and under supervision of relevant judicial authorities.
Crime Requiring Covert Surveillance Measures:
Covert surveillance measures may be taken against the suspect or accused person of the following crimes:
1. Crimes related to terrorism, money laundering and financing terrorism.
2. Crimes stipulated in the law against internal and external security.
3. Crimes related to drugs and intoxicants.
4. Corruption crimes.
5. Kidnapping and human trafficking crimes.
6. Murder crimes.
7. Crimes related to threatening of the witness, judges and prosecutors and family members of each of them under their investigation when committed for the purpose of preventing application of justice.
8. Crimes stipulated in Statute of the International Criminal Court and Final Document of Rome Diplomatic Conference.
Conditions for Taking Covert Surveillance Actions:
Secret surveillance measures can only be taken by the request of a prosecutor and authorization of a court in the following circumstances:
1. When the person is a suspect or accused person of committing one of the crimes set forth in article 113 of this law or is an accomplice in the crime.
2. When collecting the required evidence is not readily obtainable by other means or using other approaches may cause problems.
3. When a person provides the suspect or accused person with information technology and/or communication equipment with the knowledge that the suspect or accused person uses the equipment in crimes stated in article 113 of this law.
4. When a person provides a suspect or accused person with the information related to crime.
Contents of Taking Covert Surveillance Measures and Non-Disclosure
(1) The judicial officer is obliged to obtain permission from an authorized court through relevant prosecutor for application of covert surveillance actions. The request shall be in writing including the following:
1. Complete personal information of the target person.
2. Type of crime.
3. Type of covert surveillance action.
4. Good causes for application of covert surveillance measures.
5. Time of initiation and period required for application.
(2) The court shall issue an order authorizing the covert surveillance if the conditions in paragraph (1) are met otherwise the court shall reject the request stating the reasons for doing so.
(3) If the required conditions based on which surveillance actions were taken changes or is eliminated, the court that issued the ruling may amend or dissolve it.
(4) In cases indicated in paragraph (3) of this article the judicial officer is obliged to inform the relevant prosecution office immediately and the prosecution office shall inform the court in writing about the changed conditions.
(5) An order issued in accordance with provisions of this chapter may direct any real or legal person to use or permit the use of covert surveillance measures to monitor and record communications and activities of the persons named in the order.
(6) A person subject to an order described in paragraph (1) shall not disclose the existence of the order or ongoing covert surveillance to any person other than its legal counsel without the permission of the court.
Time Period for Covert Surveillance Actions
(1) The time period for surveillance actions shall be (90) days and may be extended if needed.
(2) Surveillance actions shall be carried out only during detection and investigation proceedings.
(3) The judicial officer shall report on improvements and results achieved in covert surveillance activities every 30 days to the prosecution office. The prosecution office shall report those activities to the court.
(4) In case of need for extension of covert surveillance actions order, the results achieved from carried out surveillance actions or the reasons for not achieving the intended results shall be included in the request for extension.
Listening and Inspection of Conversations and Communications
The judicial officer will listen only to conversations with criminal contents. Whenever parties start other than criminal conversation the judicial officer is obliged to stop listening to the conversation.
Maintaining Documents of the Communication
The documents related to the conversations or communications shall be sealed and locked in a proper case and within 30 days after completion of inspection and listening period shall be handed over to the court that had issued the communication inspection and listening order in order to protect it from theft, demolition and to prevent its illegal disclosure.
(4) The 1387 (2008) Law on Oversight of Implementation of the Anti-Corruption Strategy makes the following actions:
Violation of legal authority (paragraph 5)
Misuse of legal position (paragraph 6)
Misuse of the state’s facility in official time for personal purposes (paragraph 6)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020
Zia ul-Haq Amarkhel