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Afghan security forces assault reporters, detain activists

Investigate abuse of journalists, detention of protest organisers

Update: On August 31, 2016, President Ashraf Ghani's office released a statement directing officials "to evaluate and ponder all aspects of the [Bamiyan] case comprehensively and present the results to the presidency so that… violators can be dealt with under law." Human Rights Watch said that in addition to investigating and appropriately prosecuting those responsible for the assaults on journalists, the authorities should also investigate the apparently arbitrary detention of 12 to 15 protest organizers in Bamiyan province on the evening before the president's visit.

This statement was originally published on on 1 September 2016.

Afghan authorities should urgently investigate allegations that security forces physically assaulted and detained journalists after violence broke out during a protest in central Bamiyan province on August 29, 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. The demonstrators had been organizing a protest about a major power transmission line during a visit to the area by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Witnesses and some detainees said that on August 28, Afghanistan's intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), also arbitrarily detained for 24 hours 12 to 15 activists who were encouraging the protest.

"Beating reporters who are doing their job sends a message to all journalists that the Afghan government cares little for their press freedom rights," said Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Afghan authorities should investigate the Bamiyan incident and punish the officials responsible."

On the morning of August 29, Afghan National Police equipped with riot gear attempted to disperse protesters from the main city thoroughfare that Ghani was scheduled to cross, witnesses said. TOLO News and Sulaiman Ahmadi, a journalist at the scene who was among those later detained, said that violence broke out at this moment. One nongovernmental source reported that a number of people in the crowd threw stones, and that some Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) personnel were injured. Reports, video, and still images from the scene suggest that police responded to the rock-throwing by firing tear gas and warning shots into the air. Media reports indicated that police subsequently detained about 30 protesters and journalists who were covering the protest.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Shahhussain Murtazawi, who accompanied the president on the visit, told Human Rights Watch that all Bamiyan journalists had participated in the events involving the president, including the president's speech. "Nothing happened to reporters in this time," said Murtazawi.

However, journalists told Human Rights Watch that at about 2 p.m., security forces physically attacked seven journalists after they left the event with the president and arrived at the scene of the protest. NDS personnel kicked, punched, and slapped journalists and hit at least one reporter with a baton. Security forces did not apparently inflict any physical injuries, but did damage the journalists' equipment, including a camera. They confiscated the mobile phone of one reporter and erased footage of the protest from the video camera of another.

One photographer said the journalists' identity should have been clear to the security forces because of their large press badges: "The badges are not small," he said. "They're clearly visible to anyone."

"They [the security forces personnel] wanted to take away my camera but I resisted," Abbas Naderi, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, told Human Rights Watch. "They were using swear words at me and kicked and punched me. They didn't want us to film the security forces using force to disperse the protest."

Bamiyan provincial council head, Malawi Yusuf, and local journalists told Human Rights Watch that on the previous day, security personnel detained protest organizers who were driving around Bamiyan city with loudspeakers urging people to participate in protests during President Ghani's scheduled visit. The organizers belonged to the Enlightenment Movement, a protest group demanding that a major power transmission line be routed through the province of Bamiyan, which is dominated by ethnic minority Hazaras. The NDS detained the protesters overnight and released them the following evening without charge after the protests had ended and Ghani had left Bamiyan.

On August 28, the NDS also detained Deutsche Welle journalist Zaman Ahmadi, who had been accompanying protest organizers. The nongovernmental media advocacy group Nai reported that the Bamiyan governor, Tahir Zuhair, ordered the detention of Ahmadi and the protest organizers.

Abdulrahman Ahmadi, spokesperson for the Bamiyan provincial governor, told Human Rights Watch that Bamiyan security forces had rounded up 'some people" as part of the broader security plan ahead of the president's visit. Ahmadi said the detentions were justified: "Based on [intelligence] reports we had received that a number of faces [people] from outside Bamiyan – people that our elders, community members, and activists did not know – had sought to create disorder during the president's visit."

He said that for security considerations and "because these people wanted to create disorder, under these extraordinary circumstances, the security forces took steps [to detain protest organizers]."

Afghan security officials have legitimate concerns about violence at public protests, Human Rights Watch said. Twin explosions at a large Enlightenment Movement rally in Kabul on July 23 killed more than 80 people and wounded more than 230. The extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility for that attack.

Afghanistan's burgeoning media, considered one of the country's major achievements since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, has been increasingly under attack. Ten journalists have been killed in the first six months of 2016, making this year the deadliest on record. The Taliban and other insurgents have been implicated in most of the attacks, but Afghan government officials and security forces have also been responsible for assaulting and intimidating journalists.

On World Press Freedom Day this year, President Ghani reiterated his support for the press, saying: "So long as I have the responsibility of the country, I will support freedom of the press 100 percent." However, this has not translated into holding anyone accountable for attacks on the media, Human Rights Watch said.

"President Ghani should make good on his words and hold to account security forces involved in mistreatment of journalists," Gossman said. "As President Ghani has said, a free media and vibrant civil society are good for Afghanistan."

See HRW's statement for detailed accounts of the assaults on journalists.

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