KABUL — In the lawless days of Afghanistan’s civil war, Zardad Faryadi was a young militia commander with a uniquely cruel reputation.

From a highway checkpoint near Kabul, he extorted money from travelers and enforced his demands by threatening to let loose a menacing man who was later executed for killing 20 people, according to human rights reports. Faryadi fled the country but wound up serving 13 years in a British prison for conspiring to torture and take hostages in Afghanistan.

Today, at 54, he is back home and attempting to run for parliament in elections scheduled about six weeks from now. He seems like a changed man — reflective and eager to defend the rights of nomadic groups backing his candidacy. But he and 34 other candidates have been barred from running for legislative seats because of ties to illegal groups.

As the first Afghan-run elections since the Taliban regime fell in 2001, the Oct. 20 vote is seen as a democratic milestone and a make-or-break step toward a successful presidential election in April. But the vote is already under violent threat from Afghan insurgents, who have attacked local election offices and bombed a voter ID card site in the capital, killing 57 people. Now, disputes and protests among Afghans over the elections are posing a threat to them from within.

Opposition groups charge that the new voter ID system is inadequately protected from fraud. And the closed-door process that barred some candidates such as Faryadi while approving others viewed as abusive or corrupt has led to charges of political ma­nipu­la­tion and bribery as well as angry protests that shut down the central election office for nearly two weeks.

“I have not been shown any evidence against me. I want nothing to do with violence or factions,” Faryadi said in a recent interview. He denied he had committed the wartime brutalities that sent him to prison and asserted that other candidates with ongoing criminal dealings had bribed their way back into the running.

“This election has become a business,” he said. “If I had money and political influence, I would be back on the list, too.”

The list of barred candidates also includes some puzzling names, including Fawzia Koofi, 43, a liberal longtime legislator and outspoken activist for women’s rights. She has been banned from seeking reelection based on complaints by unknown individuals in her native Badakhshan province who claimed she was affiliated with an illegal group.

“When I first heard about this, I laughed,” Koofi said in an interview. “I have spent my career struggling against these kinds of abusive people and warlords, and now they say I am one of them?” She said she suspected the complaint came from political adversaries but has no way to know, because the process was secret. If she could see the charges, she said, “I would happily fight this in court.”

Election officials deny that the vetting process was flawed or manipulated. They said that they sent written explanations to all barred candidates but that they could not name individuals who had brought complaints to protect them from reprisal. More than 100 other candidates were disqualified on technical grounds, such as being younger than 25 or actively serving in government office. 

“We have taken our decisions independently, based on evidence from people and verified by many government departments,” said Ali Reza Rohani, spokesman for the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission. He said that all candidates are “welcome to prove” that officials had barred them or restored others “through bribery or political pressure,” and that it is also their right to protest “in a civil manner.”

Election monitoring groups, though, worry that the contretemps will permanently taint the elections’ credibility. Even with international guidance, they noted, several previous votes have been badly marred by fraud — including the 2014 presidential election that led to a U.S.-brokered power-sharing deal between the two top candidates, current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. 

Yousuf Rashid, head of the Fair and Free Election Forum of Afghanistan, said that because the country has a weak judicial system, violent clashes and crimes often go unresolved in any formal way. As a result, festering personal, tribal or wartime feuds can be injected into elections, with no way to know which side is telling the truth.

“People come and say, ‘He killed my brother,’ or ‘He stole government properties,’ but this is not the mandate of the election commission,” Rashid said. In one case, he noted, a group complained that a candidate had orchestrated the massacre of 120 people in a mosque. “If the commission decides that A or B killed 120 people” without a public process, “everything becomes politicized. It can create a disaster.”

This headline-grabbing drama has overshadowed the efforts of lesser-known candidates, some of whom are entering politics for the first time. It has also obscured the struggles of others running
in conflict-ridden or Taliban-controlled districts that are so dangerous that candidates cannot hold campaign events or meet with constituents. 

Little attention has been paid to the unprecedented bid by the small community of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus to send their first-ever representative to parliament. A Sikh leader from Jalalabad city, Awtar Singh Khalsa, had planned to run, but he was killed July 1 while traveling in a convoy there that was bombed by insurgents.

His son, Narinder Singh Khalsa, 37, was wounded by shrapnel in the attack. A shy man who runs the family herbal-medicine business, Khalsa is now reluctantly running in his father’s place to speak up for their religious minority. 

“We have not picked up arms to threaten or fight anyone,” he said. “We are harmless people, but we have not been given our rights.” 

The challenges are just as tough for Nazari Turkman, a legislator from Kunduz who is running for reelection. Kunduz has been overrun twice by the Taliban and retaken by Afghan security forces with U.S. support. During the last election in 2009, Turkman said, the Taliban controlled about 10 percent of the district where most of his supporters live. Now, he said, it controls 90 percent of it. 

“I have not been able to visit there so far. I don’t have enough guards,” he said by phone from Kunduz city. He said four people in the area have already been killed by the Taliban for participating in pre-election activities. 

When the campaign starts several weeks from now, Turkman said, “I will visit the district once at any cost. It is impossible to go there twice.”

Sharif Hassan and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.