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Afghanistan

Executive Summary

Afghanistan is an Islamic republic with a directly elected president, a bicameral legislative branch, and a judicial branch. Parliamentary elections for the lower house of parliament were constitutionally mandated for 2015, but for a number of reasons, were not held until October 2018. Elections were held on October 20 and 21 in all provinces except in Ghazni where they were delayed due to an earlier political dispute and in Kandahar where they were delayed following the October 18 assassination of provincial Chief of Police Abdul Raziq. Elections took place in Kandahar on October 27, but elections in Ghazni were not scheduled by year’s end. Although there was high voter turnout, the election was marred by violence, technical issues, and irregularities, including voter intimidation, vote rigging, and interference by electoral commission staff and police. In some cases, polling stations were forced to close due to pressure from local leaders.

Civilian authorities generally maintained control over the security forces, although security forces occasionally acted independently.

Human rights issues included extrajudicial killings by security forces; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest; arbitrary detention; criminalization of defamation; government corruption; lack of accountability and investigation in cases of violence against women, including those accused of so-called moral crimes; sexual abuse of children by security force members; violence by security forces against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community; and violence against journalists.

Widespread disregard for the rule of law and official impunity for those responsible for human rights abuses were serious problems. The government did not consistently or effectively prosecute abuses by officials, including security forces.

There were major attacks on civilians by armed insurgent groups and targeted assassinations by armed insurgent groups of persons affiliated with the government. The Taliban and other insurgents continued to kill security force personnel and civilians using indiscriminate tactics such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide attacks, and rocket attacks, and to commit disappearances and torture. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) attributed 65 percent of civilian casualties during the first nine months of the year (1,743 deaths and 3,500 injured) to antigovernment actors. The Taliban and ISIS-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) used children as suicide bombers, soldiers, and weapons carriers. Other antigovernment elements threatened, robbed, kidnapped, and attacked government workers, foreigners, medical and nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers, and other civilians.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

b. Disappearance

There were reports of disappearances committed by security forces and antigovernment forces alike.

UNAMA, in its biannual Report on the Treatment of Conflict-Related Detainees, reported multiple allegations of disappearances by the ANP in Kandahar.

Two professors, working for the American University of Afghanistan and kidnapped by the Taliban in 2016 in Kabul, remained in captivity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes restricted this right.

Freedom of Expression: The law provides for freedom of speech, and the country has a free press. There were reports authorities at times used pressure, regulations, and threats to silence critics. Criticism of the central government was regular and generally free from restrictions, but criticism of provincial governments was more constrained, where local officials and power brokers exerted significant influence and authority to intimidate or threaten their critics, both private citizens and journalists. On April 30, a suicide bomber, wearing a media credentials badge and mixed in with reporters covering an earlier attack, killed nine reporters and photographers in Kabul. The bombing compounded a pattern of intimidation, harassment, beatings, shootings, and killings of journalists, by insurgent groups.

Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. The Access to Information Law was amended during the year and received high ratings Transparency International. Implementation remained inconsistent and media reports consistent failure by the government to meet the requirements of the law. Government officials often restricted media access to government information or simply ignored requests. UNAMA, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders report that the government has not fully implemented the Access to Information Law and journalists often do not receive access to information they seek. The head of Tolo News, reported that attacks, which killed journalists, had led to increased government restrictions, less access, and less support.

Journalists reported facing threats of violence from the internal conflict. Politicians, security officials, and others in positions of power at times threatened or harassed journalists because of their coverage. Human Rights Watch reported dozens of cases of violence against journalists by security forces, members of parliament, and other officials that the government failed to prosecute. According to news reports, NDS forces forcibly prevented four journalists from 1TV and Tamadon from investigating the bombing of a mosque in Herat on March 25.

Freedom of speech and an independent media were more constrained at the provincial level than in the capital, Kabul. Political and ethnic groups, including those led by former mujahedin leaders, financed many provincial media outlets and used their financial support to control the content. Some provinces had limited media presence altogether.

Print and online media continued to publish independent magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and websites. A wide range of editorials and dailies openly criticized the government. Still, there were concerns that violence and instability threatened journalists’ safety. Due to high levels of illiteracy, most citizens preferred broadcast to print or online media. A greater percentage of the population, including those in distant provinces, had access to radio.

Violence and Harassment: Government officials and private citizens used threats of violence to intimidate independent and opposition journalists, particularly those who spoke out against impunity, crimes, and corruption by powerful local figures. According to media reports, NDS forces beat several journalists covering a suicide bombing in Kabul on July 26 and intentionally destroyed their equipment in an effort to impede their reporting. Following the release of news reports detailing corruption involving a high-ranking government official, one media outlet reported threats against the journalist by the official’s security guards.

The Afghan Journalist Safety Committee (AJSC) reported 11 journalists killed in the first six months of the year. During the same period, the AJSC recorded 89 cases of violence against journalists, which included killing, beating, inflicting injury and humiliation, intimidation, and detention of journalists–a 22 percent increase from the first six months of 2017. Government-affiliated individuals or security forces were responsible for 36 instances of violence, approximately the same number as in 2017 when 34 cases were attributed to them. Instances of violence attributed to the Taliban and ISIS-K rose sharply by 70 percent over the same period in 2017–from 22 cases to 37 cases.

The Taliban continued to attack media organizations, including during their military offensive on Ghazni Province in August, when they reportedly burned a local radio station.

Increased levels of insecurity created a dangerous environment for journalists, even when they were not the specific targets of violence. Media organizations and journalists operating in remote areas were more vulnerable to threats, intimidation, and violence from insurgents, warlords, and organized criminals. During the year several journalists reported attacks by unknown gunmen connected, they claimed, to their coverage of powerful individuals. They also reported local governmental authorities were less cooperative in facilitating access to information.

In August 2016 the Office of the National Security Council approved a new set of guidelines to address cases of violence against journalists, but these guidelines have not been fully implemented. The initiative created a joint national committee in Kabul and separate committees in provincial capitals, a coordination center to investigate and identify perpetrators of violence against journalists, and a support committee run by the NDS to identify threats against journalists. Press freedom organizations reported that, although the committee met and referred cases to the Attorney General’s Office, it did not increase protection for journalists. In response to recent attacks on journalists, President Ghani announced the expansion of the Journalists Support Fund in October to assist family members of journalists killed in the line of duty.

Media advocacy groups reported that many female journalists worked under pseudonyms in both print and social media to avoid recognition, harassment, and retaliation. According to one group, there were no female journalists in nine provinces: Helmand, Nuristan, Uruzgan, Paktiya, Paktika, Zabul, Logar, Sar-e Pul, and Laghman.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media observers claimed journalists reporting on administrative corruption, land embezzlement, and local officials’ involvement in narcotics trafficking engaged in self-censorship due to fear of violent retribution by provincial police officials and powerful families. Journalists and NGOs reported that although the amended 2018 Access to Information Law provided an excellent regulatory framework, enforcement remained inconsistent and that noncompliant officials were rarely held accountable. A Kabul Press Club survey showed more than half of journalists were dissatisfied with the level of access to government information. An NGO supporting media freedom surveyed government offices and found that one-third did not have dedicated offices for providing information to the public.

Libel/Slander Laws: The penal code and the mass media law prescribe jail sentences and fines for defamation. Authorities sometimes used defamation as a pretext to suppress criticism of government officials.

National Security: Journalists complained government officials frequently invoked the national interest exception in the Access to Information law to avoid disclosing information.

Nongovernmental Impact: Some reporters acknowledged they avoided criticizing the insurgency and some neighboring countries in their reporting because they feared Taliban retribution. Insurgent groups coerced media agencies in insecure areas to prevent them from broadcasting or publishing advertisements and announcements of the security forces, entertainment programming, music, and women’s voices.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 11.4 percent of the population had internet access, mostly in urban areas, in 2017.

Media outlets and activists routinely used social media to discuss political developments, and Facebook was widely used in urban areas. The Taliban used the internet and social media to spread its messages. Internet usage remained relatively low due to high prices, a lack of local content, and illiteracy.

There were many reports during the year of Taliban attempts to restrict access to information, often by destroying or shutting down telecommunications antennae and other equipment.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the opportunity to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. Citizens exercised this ability in the 2014 presidential and provincial elections and the 2010 and 2018 parliamentary elections. Violence from the Taliban and other antigovernment groups and widespread allegations of fraud and corruption interfered with, but did not derail, the 2014 presidential elections and 2018 parliamentary elections. The constitution mandates parliamentary elections every five years, but the government’s inability to agree on needed electoral reforms delayed the 2015 elections until 2018. Members of parliament remained in office past the June 2015 expiration of their five-year terms by virtue of a presidential decree.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: National parliamentary elections were held on October 20 and 21 in all but two provinces. Approximately four million out of 8.8 million registered voters cast ballots. Voting was postponed by one week in Kandahar due to an October 18 attack that killed provincial Chief of Police Abdul Raziq. The Independent Election Commission (IEC) had not set a date for parliamentary elections in Ghazni Province at year’s end due to an earlier political dispute and protests that prevented the voter registration process in that province. Although there was high voter turnout, the election was marred by irregularities, including fraudulent voter registration, voter intimidation, vote rigging, such as interference by IEC staff and police, and in some cases, polling stations forced to close due to pressure from local leaders. The Interior Ministry reported 44 people had been charged with “illegal interference in the election and fraud.”

The United Nations reported that groups, primarily the Taliban, used threats, intimidation, and harassment to quell voting. Fifty-six individuals were reportedly killed and 379 injured due to election-related violence, including one bombing in Kabul that killed 18. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that attacks killed at least 10 parliamentary candidates prior to the election, but the motivation for and perpetrators of those attacks was not clear.

A number of technical issues also hindered the voting process, including errors on voter lists, missing voter lists, missing election supplies, and a shortage of poll workers. The last-minute introduction of biometric voter verification devices in the election preparation process caused confusion and contributed to delayed polling and long lines. On December 6, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) invalidated the votes cast in Kabul Province due to complaints of fraud, mismanagement and other voting irregularities and called for a new vote; however, days later the ECC reversed its decision following a series of meetings with the government and the IEC and an agreement from the IEC to share more information from the recount of ballots from Kabul.

The IEC released preliminary parliamentary results for all provinces but Ghazni, Kabul, Nangargar, Baghlan, and Paktia at year’s end.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The Political Party Law of 2003 granted parties the right to exist as formal institutions for the first time in the country’s history. Under this law any citizen 25 years or older may establish a political party. The law requires parties to have at least 10,000 members from the country’s 34 provinces to register with the Ministry of Justice, conduct official party business, and introduce candidates in elections. Only citizens who are 18 years or older and have the right to vote can join a political party. Certain members of the government, judiciary, military, and government-affiliated commissions are prohibited from political party membership during their tenure in office.

There were large areas of the country where political parties could not operate due to insurgencies and instability. Political parties played a greater role in the 2014 presidential elections than in previous elections, and the organization, networks, and public support of the parties that supported Abdullah and Ghani contributed to their success as presidential candidates.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process. The constitution specifies a minimum number of seats for women and minorities in the two houses of parliament. For the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of the National Assembly), the constitution mandates that at least two women shall be elected from each province (for a total of 68). In the 2010 parliamentary elections, more women won seats than the minimum outlined in the constitution. The winners of the 2018 parliamentary election have not yet been announced. The constitution also mandates one-half of presidential appointees must be women. It also sets aside 10 seats in the Wolesi Jirga for members of the Kuchi minority (nomads). In the Meshrano Jirga (upper house of the National Assembly), the president’s appointees must include two Kuchis and two members with physical disabilities. In practice, one seat in the Meshrano Jirga is reserved for the appointment of a Sikh or Hindu representative, although this is not mandated by the constitution.

Traditional societal practices continue to limit women’s participation in politics and activities outside the home and community, including the need to have a male escort or permission to work. These factors, in addition to an education and experience gap, likely contributed to the central government’s male-dominated composition. The 2016 electoral law mandates that 25 percent of all provincial, district, and village council seats “shall be allocated to female candidates.” Neither district nor village councils had been established by year’s end.

Women active in government and politics continued to face threats and violence and were targets of attacks by the Taliban and other insurgent groups. No laws prevent minorities from participating in political life, although different ethnic groups complained of unequal access to local government jobs in provinces where they were in the minority. Individuals from the majority Pashtun ethnic group have more seats than any other ethnic group in both houses of parliament, but they do not have more than 50 percent of the seats. There was no evidence specific societal groups have been excluded. In past elections male family members could vote on behalf of the women in their families; however, the 2016 Electoral Law prohibited this practice, and the 2018 parliamentary election was the first where proxy voting for women was illegal.

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