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Afghan leader, US envoy rebuke spy agency’s detention of activist reporting on sexual abuse

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, at the White House in 2015.

STARS AND STRIPES

By SUSANNAH GEORGE | The Washington Post | Published: November 27, 2019

KABUL, Afghanistan — The detention by Afghan intelligence officials of a civil society activist who alleged widespread child abuse in one province is drawing criticism from the country’s president and the U.S. ambassador, in a rare public rebuke of Kabul’s main spy agency.

Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security said it was holding the activist, Mohammad Musa Mahmudi “for his own safety,” but following the public outcry, he and a fellow activist from Logar were released Wednesday, according to Afghanistan’s governmental Independent Human Rights Commission.

The commission issued a statement welcoming the activists’ release, saying the move shows the Afghan government’s commitment to democracy, but it also demanded the “protection of human rights defenders.”

Before their release, U.S. Ambassador John Bass said he was “deeply disturbed” by the activists’ detention, while Afghan President Ashraf Ghani criticized the agency’s handling of the situation.

“It’s appalling to coerce confessions from civil society activists whose goal is to protect #Afghan children,” Bass said in a tweet Tuesday.

Ghani tweeted that he had “immediately instructed NDS to stop the proceedings” after being briefed Tuesday on the matter. He added that he had instructed the Education Ministry to investigate.

Mahmudi’s report alleged that more than 550 boys had been sexually abused at half a dozen schools in Afghanistan’s Logar province. He said teachers, headmasters and local officials were involved in the alleged abuse, according to local news reports on his findings.

After confirming Mahmudi was in its custody, the Afghan intelligence agency released a video clip of him renouncing his findings and asking for forgiveness from the Afghan people and government. Mahmudi appeared tense in the video, shifting his gaze from the camera to his hands on the table in front of him.

The video also featured Ehsanullah Hamidi, a fellow activist from Logar detained with Mahmudi.

Bass described the spy agency’s release of the videotaped confession as “Soviet-style tactics.”

Human rights activists in Afghanistan have come under attack both from forces aligned with the government and anti-government armed groups. In August, Amnesty International warned that such attacks were intensifying and criticized the Afghan government for failing to investigate.

“The Afghan government has a duty to respect, protect and support activists, to investigate threats and attacks against them, and to hold suspected perpetrators accountable,” said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International in a news release accompanying the report.

The NDS has come under fire repeatedly from human rights organizations for abuses against civilians. Most recently, the intelligence agency was the focus of an October Human Rights Watch report on night raids carried out by forces under its command.

“The NDS has a long track record of illegal detention and torture. But this is a new low,” said Patricia Gossman, the lead Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To detain two human rights activists who exposed government officials and teachers responsible for widespread sexual abuse of children is nothing short of silencing the messenger.”

While illegal in Afghanistan, the practice of “bacha bazi,” or “boy pleasure” — in which wealthy or prominent Afghans sexually exploit underage boys — persists, according to human rights groups. Perpetrators are rarely prosecuted and instead, the victims are often punished by their families or communities.

Mahmudi’s report on allegations of abuse in Logar was met with sharp criticism from local officials who accused him of tarnishing the province’s reputation.

Amnesty International released what it said were text messages Mahmudi sent just before he was taken into NDS custody last week, in which he indicated the spy agency was “trying to arrest me” and “blame me for everything.”

“Every minute is a possibility that I would be killed … What should I do?” he wrote, according to Amnesty.

The U.S. has debated how to respond to the sexual abuse of children in Afghanistan. After reports alleging that sexual abuse of boys was “rampant” in Afghan military units, a U.S. government watchdog suggested Congress prohibit Defense Department spending on Afghan units found guilty of abuse. But the Pentagon balked at the suggestion, saying such incidents must be weighed against U.S. national security interests.

The Washington Post’s Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.

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