Twenty-one candidates running in Afghanistan's upcoming legislative election have been disqualified for maintaining links to illegal armed militias and seven more for failing to resign from government posts, the joint Afghan and international Electoral Complaints Commission announced Monday.
The move, six days before the Sunday vote, followed dismay among many Afghans over the commission's decision two months ago to exclude only 11 of nearly 6,000 candidates on the basis of failure to disarm. Six others were barred for retaining official positions.
The voting will be Afghanistan's first parliamentary election in more than two decades. The electorate is to choose 249 representatives for the lower house of parliament as well as members of 34 provincial councils that will help select the upper house.
The latest disqualifications did not satisfy human rights advocates who have expressed concern that the field of contenders is rife with warlords who committed well-documented atrocities during warfare that began in 1978.
"We're definitely happy to see more names excluded, and to see some mid-ranking names this time as opposed to just district-level people," said Joanna Nathan, Afghanistan director of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based advocacy organization. "But there's still widespread disappointment that the big names are not on there."
Nathan said officials in Kabul consider these people untouchable for "reasons of national stability. The past abusers are the ones who continue to abuse power today."
Grant Kippen, chairman of the electoral commission, countered that the body did not have the power to disqualify a candidate on grounds of war crimes unless there had been a conviction. That is a virtual impossibility because Afghanistan has no war crimes tribunals.
"We can't deal with complaints that are simply allegations," Kippen said. "Our mandate is to deal with offenses under electoral law. We're not a criminal court."
Kippen said the commission relied on the recommendations of a disarmament commission that includes representatives of the Afghan government, the United Nations, the U.S. military and a NATO-led international force to determine which candidates retained associations with banned armed groups.
Nathan and other rights advocates have complained that the commission is dominated by the government of President Hamid Karzai and that its work is largely secret. "It's all about bargaining behind closed doors," Nathan said. Although the 21 excluded candidates came from a variety of provinces and ethnic groups, none is considered close to Karzai.
One of the candidates whose disqualification was announced Monday, a 46-year-old man using the single name Deedar, said he was never shown the evidence against him. "This is not a real and fair election. It's just like a show to deceive people," said Deedar, who is running for a seat in the lower house from the central Kabul district.
During his campaign, Deedar emphasized his past as a fighter against Soviet troops, who operated in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, while playing down his role as a low-level commander during the rule of the Islamic Taliban movement that took power in the mid-1990s. Deedar has denied belonging to the Taliban but acknowledges commanding men from his own tribe who sometimes helped the Taliban. Several former Taliban officials said he led more than 100 men from a base in Kabul.
Several months ago, Deedar, who has spent most of his time in Pakistan since the Taliban's ouster in 2001, was able to return to Afghanistan under a government program to reintegrate former Taliban members who are willing to pledge allegiance to the government.
On Monday, Deedar said his disqualification from the parliamentary race would discourage others from taking part in the program. "People who want to reconcile will look at my case and conclude that it's hopeless," he said.
He also predicted that he and other excluded candidates could still technically win, since it is too late to take their names off ballots. "I've tried to reach my supporters to let them know I'm no longer eligible. But many of them still don't know," he said. "And I am very popular."