Afghanistan intellectuals under threat in Pakistan

The Guardian
Rory McCarthy in Peshawar
July 6, 2000

Hundreds of Afghan academics and former politicians who have taken refuge in Pakistan are in danger from Islamic extremists, the chairman of the Pakistani Human Rights Commission said yesterday.

Last month an Afghan writer was seriously injured by gunmen in Peshawar. Two weeks later Pakistan expelled a liberal professor: the first time it has deported an Afghan academic. Now the extremists are thought to be preparing to attack other liberals opposed to the hardline Taliban regime in Kabul.

"This is a message to other Afghan liberals to keep their mouths closed," the commission chairman, Afrasiab Khattak, said.

"They are in serious danger. Muslim fundamentalists will hunt them and kill them."

Scores of Afghans living in Peshawar, just two hours' drive from the Khyber Pass, have been killed in attacks by rival mojahedin groups since the Soviets finally retreated from Afghanistan in 1989.

Now, for the first time, refugees are being picked on for their opposition to the Taliban, who seized Kabul four years ago and imposed their brutally strict interpretation of Islamic shariah law.

Mohammad Enam Wak was injured in an assassination attempt after publishing a book arguing that few in Afghanistan supported the Taliban. Gunmen burst into his Peshawar home and shot him in the chest and twice in the arm.

Then Abdul Rehman Elham, a former professor at Kabul University and a critic of Islamabad's support for the Taliban, was ordered to leave Pakistan and return to an uncertain future in Afghanistan. He was reported to have been expelled for "anti-Pakistan activities".

"This is the first time the Pakistan government has deported an academic. It is a major policy shift," Mr Khattak said. "People like Professor Elham would face death at the hands of the Taliban."

Leaders of the Afghan community in Peshawar believe that friends have taken Mr Elham into hiding in the lawless tribal areas along the border rather than hand him over to the Taliban.

Amnesty International, which protested to Pakistan about the deportation, said scores of prominent Afghans had been jailed and tortured by the Taliban in the past two years for supporting the idea of a multi-ethnic government.

More than 2m Afghans are refugees in Pakistan, with little legal protection from the state. Many live in Peshawar, where their neighbours are mojahedin commanders, Taliban fighters and pro-Taliban Islamic extremists.

Abdul Rashid Waziri believes his name is high on the hit list drawn up by the radicals. For five years he was a minister in the pro-Soviet government of Mohammad Najibullah before it was brought down by Pakistan-backed mojahedin groups in 1992.

Since then he has lived in Peshawar, too frightened to return home. "The leader of the Taliban says everybody is allowed to go back to Afghanistan, except the communists," he said.

Several times he has gone into hiding after being warned his life was in danger, and he now changes his address every few months.

Hundreds of other Afghans in Pakistan share Mr Waziri's hatred of the Taliban. Most support the idea of a multi-ethnic government led by the former king, Zahir Shah.

"There is a great security problem. My name is always on the top of the hit list. But we cannot cooperate with the undemocratic government in Afghanistan," he said.

"And now Pakistan is changing because the Islamic groups are very powerful and want to impose an Islamic order. They will kill me, I know that."

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