KABUL (PAN): An international group has said Afghans continue to have significant human rights concerns about the preparation and plans for the presidential election due on August 20 -- the second vote since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday questions remained about whether Afghans would really be able to exercise their right to vote in Thursday's polls involving more than 30 presidential candidates.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: "Violence, plans to use irregular security forces at polling stations, unequal access of candidates to state media and conditions affecting women are of particular concern."

In a statement, the New York-based rights group said primary election-related concerns were about women’s participation in the vote, election-related violence, tribal militia, independence of the poll panel, abuse of governmental power, equal access to the media and a risk of wide-scale fraud and voter disenfranchisement

Women’s participation: Cultural obstacles and the risk of attacks against women by the Taliban and other insurgent groups presented significant obstacles to women’s participation as voters and candidates, HRW said.

In the run-up to polling day, it said, the government, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the international military, the United Nations and international donors have done little to counter these challenges.

As a result, critical issues such as ensuring that enough women are available to carry out security checks of women voters at polling stations were addressed too late to recruit adequate numbers. Security arrangements for women candidates were similarly disorganised and ineffective, with bodyguards promised by the Ministry of Interior not materialising in many areas.

Election-related violence: Between April 25 and August 1, there were at least 13 politics-related killings and at least 10 abductions of Electoral Commission officials, candidates and campaign workers. Several provincial council candidates have withdrawn after receiving death threats. Some insurgent factions also warned voters not to go to the polls.

Tribal militia: HRW stressed security concerns in Afghanistan should not be used to justify the hasty creation of another irregular armed militia. The government has initiated a plan to recruit up to 10,000 “community defence forces” in areas where insecurity and insufficient police and army meant polling stations might not open.

It quoted the Independent Election Commission as saying that only official Afghan security forces and police should provide security at polling stations, but it is not clear that this will be observed.

"The credibility of this election should not be further compromised by the use of irregular security forces that may work for a particular candidate," remarked said Adams. "Security for voters will not be increased by the presence of armed groups who may open the way for fraud and intimidation."

Independence of IEC: The independence of IEC was compromised by the insistence of President Hamid Karzai that he should appoint the head of the commission without any parliamentary oversight, the HR group pointed out. He chose Azizullah Ludin, who has displayed clear bias against some opposition candidates, including attempts to pressure the Electoral Complaints Commission to exclude certain candidates, and publicly criticising the caliber and mental health of others. There have also been complaints made by candidates and monitoring officials also have raised questions about the impartiality and behavior of some of the commission's field staff.

Abuse of governmental power: According to HRW, there have been widespread abuses of power, including misuse of government resources and violations of the presidential decree on noninterference by government officials, most of which have benefitted Karzai. The result is that the playing field for all candidates is not level, undermining the extent to which these elections will be seen as fair.

Equal access to media: The governmental Media Commission has criticised the lack of impartiality in coverage of the presidential campaign, while largely commending the balance of reporting on provincial council elections.

The state broadcaster, RTA, has been harshly criticised for favouring the incumbent, with the Media Commission reporting that 67 percent of coverage went to Karzai, with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah coming in second, with only eight percent of coverage.

The HRW report said Afghan journalists outside the major urban centers had told media-monitoring organisations that they were under pressure from the supporters of local candidates.

Risk of fraud and voter disenfranchisement: The potential for fraud in the elections has been well-documented by organisations including the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), the UN/Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the International Crisis Group and the Afghan Analysts Network, it claimed.

Voter-registration problems, multiple voting, fraudulent proxy voting, ballot stuffing, false tabulation of results and other improprieties by Electoral Commission field staff could undermine the legitimacy of the results, it warned. The risks are greatest in areas with very limited or no presence of independent observers.




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