x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Executions of Afghans reviving resentment of Iran

Many Afghan refugees hope for a haven in their western neighbour but return with stories of abuse, torture and addiction

KABUL // Allegations that Iran recently executed dozens of Afghan prisoners have caused anger in Kabul and left people questioning the substance of their country's relationship with its neighbour. Over the past fortnight, protesters have been holding sporadic demonstrations here after reports emerged that a number of their fellow citizens were hanged across the border on charges of drug trafficking.

The Iranian government claims six were killed, but many in Afghanistan believe the actual figure is closer to 50, with thousands more waiting on death row. The resulting fury has at times spilled over into parliament, the media and the streets. "We are neighbours and we have a shared history and culture, but our relationship has only been strong in the last nine years at a governmental level," said Hafizullah Zakhi, the editor of the weekly newspaper Mosharekat Milli.

"At the level of ordinary people, our refugees had a lot of problems before and they have a lot of problems now." Iran lies on Afghanistan's western border and it contains a significant Afghan population, made up largely of those who have fled decades of conflict and economic migrants who have travelled illegally there in search of work. The two nations were bitter enemies when the Taliban regime was in power, but since the US-led invasion they have established increasingly close ties.

Tehran-funded reconstruction projects can be found throughout much of the country here and the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited Kabul in March. However, widespread allegations that scores of Afghans have just been executed has caused deep-rooted ill feeling to come to the surface and led to claims that the friendship between the neighbours is far from equal. "It's not important if they hanged six or four or less than that, what's important is why are they hanging an Afghan, a human, without any proof or clear judicial process?" said Mr Zakhi.

"We can improve both countries' relationship when we have mutual respect between each other." According to the UN, more than 930,000 registered Afghan refugees live in Iran and most of them have been there for decades. Unknown numbers are also believed to be working there illegally - often in grim conditions. Many come back with accounts of physical abuse or torture by their employers and the police. Drug addiction is also common among returnees.

These problems created an undercurrent of tension long before the executions, but recent events have only served to heighten anger on this side of the border, with people here claiming Tehran has shown a consistent disregard for the welfare of their countrymen. "The Iranian government has never been committed to international rules and regulations," said Shamsullah Ahmadzai of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "The majority of Afghans are going to Iran without any passport or visa and we accept that's a crime. But it's not such a crime that they should be hanged or sent to jail for a long time."

Citing reports from the media here, he claimed around 3,000 Afghan prisoners were on death row having routinely been denied access to lawyers and forced to sign confessions. He accused officials here of not doing enough to help them. Meanwhile, Amnesty International has demanded that Tehran ends the "secrecy" surrounding the executions, describing the number of those allegedly killed as "truly disturbing".

The government in Kabul has sought to defend its handling of the issue. Ahmad Zahir Faqiri, the spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs, said around six Afghans had in fact been executed, while between 4,800 and 5,000 were in Iranian jails. He added that a high-level delegation will soon be travelling to Iran in the spirit of "close friendship and brotherhood" to discuss the possibility of gaining better access to detainees, decreasing their sentences and finalising a bi-lateral agreement on the transfer of prisoners.

"We value this relationship and we look forward to its expansion," he said. That is unlikely to please some. The biggest and most recent protest against the executions came in the eastern city of Jalalabad last week and other demonstrations have been held, most notably outside the Iranian Embassy in Kabul. As leader of the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, Mohammed Dawood Razmak has played a key role in the rallies, organising activists and helping prepare graphic placards showing hanged prisoners.

Himself a former refugee who fled to Iran during the Soviet occupation, he said the protests were "our national duty". Mr Razmak accused Iran of having a long record of killing Afghans, which included its backing of Shiite militias during the brutal civil war here in the 1990s. "The Iranian government has played the most negative role in Afghanistan during the last 30 years," he said. @Email:csands@thenational.ae