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Afghan Protesters Defiant Despite Deadly Crackdown

Afghan riot police clashed with demonstrators during an antigovernment protest in Kabul on June 2. At least five people were killed in the violence.
Afghan riot police clashed with demonstrators during an antigovernment protest in Kabul on June 2. At least five people were killed in the violence.

Protesters in Afghanistan are vowing to defy authorities and continue their antigovernment demonstrations despite the bloodiest crackdown on dissent in that country since the overthrow of the Taliban regime 16 years ago.

Afghan security personnel have killed at least six protesters and wounded dozens more in the capital in the past month, as demands at rallies have included the resignation of President Ashraf Ghani's government.

Tensions have been high in Kabul since a truck bomb killed more than 150 people on May 31, the single deadliest attack since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

That brazen attack has triggered a wave of popular anger at the government, culminating in protests, street clashes between demonstrators and police, and sit-in camps across the city.

In the latest confrontation between protesters and police, security personnel on June 20 stormed and dismantled a sit-in camp, prompting a backlash from protesters after police used live rounds. Organizers claimed two protesters were killed, although officials cite just one death.

The bombings so close to the heart of Afghanistan's embattled central government have fueled reports of a crisis of confidence in Ghani’s deeply unpopular and divided national unity government, which has proved unable to curb violence since coming to power in 2014.

The attacks have also exacerbated tensions between rival ethnically based political groups in Afghanistan and exposed divisions in the administration.

‘We Will Continue’

Ghani has dismissed talk of resignation and has called for unity.

But in an apparent effort to appease the protesters, Ghani on June 11 sacked two top security officials, including the Kabul police chief, over the killing of demonstrators on June 2.

Ghani has also pledged a thorough investigation into the bombings in Kabul. The government will consider the protester's "logical demands," he said, but he will not resign because that would exacerbate insecurity.

"We will not only continue our protests, but we will expand them,” Haroon Motaref, a protest leader, tells RFE/RL. “Our civilian movement will only get stronger. We will make sure the government cannot forcibly stop the people [from protesting].”

Motaref, a 30-year-old university graduate and one of the organizers of the Uprising For Change movement, says the “illegitimate” government must resign because it has failed its people.

“The Afghan people are tired of the current situation,” he adds. “Every day people are dying and innocent people on the street are being killed. If this government doesn’t have the ability to bring peace and security [it should resign].”

In a statement issued after the protest deaths on June 20, the organizers said: "We assure the people that despite this barbaric attack by the government and this grave crime against humanity, we will continue our civil movement.”

On June 2, at least five people were killed and around 20 injured in clashes between police and antigovernment protesters.

Demonstrators set up eight protest camps around Kabul after those clashes. They took down most of them after an agreement with the government but had refused to leave a sit-in camp near the May 31 bombing site, which was eventually dismantled by security forces on June 20.

Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah -- who holds some governing authority under a 3-year-old "government of national unity" deal with Ghani -- said the “unfortunate incident” on June 20 killed one person and wounded six others. He promised an investigation.

But protest organizers claim two demonstrators were killed and that 12 were detained by authorities.

Blinded, Whisked Away

Motaref said the two protesters killed on June 20 were Ejaz ul-Haq, a university graduate from the northern province of Panjshir who died of bullet wounds, and a 16-year-old boy from Badakhshan Province who was run over by a Humvee. He had joined the movement because his father was wounded in the May 31 bombing, Motaref added.

One of those who was allegedly detained by police was Asar Hakimi, a protester who witnessed the forceful June 20 dismantling of the sit-in camp in Kabul. Much of the capital is now in lockdown, with many streets blocked with shipping containers and armored vehicles.

Hakimi says that overnight on June 19-20 Kabul police with sticks and batons tried to clear the protesters. When that failed, he said, police officers with guns stormed the tent. He said he was arrested, blindfolded, and whisked away by plainclothes security personnel to an empty building for questioning.

“It was 3 in the morning and I didn’t know where I was,” says Hakimi. “I didn’t know who they were. They weren’t wearing military uniforms. But they were armed.”

Hakimi says his interrogators demanded to know who was leading the sit-in, what their intentions were, and whether they had contact with foreign countries. He says he was released after several hours.

“We are shocked that our security forces, which are the defenders of the people and democracy in this country, are storming a peaceful sit-in during the holy month of Ramadan,” he says.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.