IWPR, April 11, 2007
Journalist's Death Casts Long Shadow Over Afghan Government
"After Ajmal's murder, my hatred of the government increased. They could release five Taliban killers for one Italian, but they could do nothing for Ajmal."
By Hafizullah Gardesh
President Karzai may have helped save the Prodi government by trading Taliban prisoners for an Italian hostage, but in the process, he has damaged his own credibility at home.
The murder of Ajmal Naqshbandi, the Afghan journalist kidnapped in Helmand on March 5, shocked the country. A growing wave of anger is directed at the government of President Hamed Karzai, who is viewed as having condemned Ajmal to death by his inaction.
The news hit the airwaves on April 8. Shahabuddin Atal, who claims to be spokesman for feared Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, told the media that the young journalist had been beheaded, one day ahead of a deadline set by his captors.
Within hours, the country was in uproar.
Nesar Ahmad, 40, a Kabul resident, could not speak of Ajmal without tears in his eyes.
"Why are these oppressors killing you [journalists], who have no weapons besides a pen and a notebook? You are the voice of the nation, you bring the misery of the people to the ears of the world. Our government does not support our people, it is you journalists who do," he said.
Ajmal Naqshbandi and a driver, Sayed Agha, were seized by the Taliban in Helmand province on March 5 along with Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, whom they were accompanying.
Sayed Agha was beheaded within days, while Mastrogiacomo was freed in a controversial deal approved by the Karzai government. Five Taliban detainees were exchanged for the Italian, including Mullah Dadullah's brother, Mansoor Ahmad, and Latif Hakimi, the former spokesman of the Taliban.
Defending himself against the criticism that he gave in to the Taliban's demands too easily, President Karzai said, "Italy has given great help to this war-shattered country. When they ask for help, we should respond positively."
But critics argue that the exchange will just encourage the Taliban to carry out further abductions.
One Taliban commander in Helmand, who refused to give his name, lent credence to these fears.
"Kidnappings are now more important to us than suicide attacks," he told IWPR. "We will follow this path in the future."
Ajmal was reportedly freed along with Mastrogiacomo on March 19.
The story then grows quite murky. According to information from local sources in Helmand and confirmed by officials in Kabul, the young Afghan was taken to the Emergency Hospital in Lashkar Gah run by an Italian aid agency, from where he later disappeared.
The head of the hospital, Rahmatullah Hanefi, has been arrested and is under investigation for his alleged complicity in the affair.
Ajmal, who was held for five weeks before his murder, became a focal point for popular disaffection with the Afghan government, which many saw as indifferent to the fate of its own citizens. The longer the crisis went on, the more explosive the situation became.
In Kabul, journalists' associations organised a protest in front of parliament on April 9, the day after Ajmal's murder. They issued a joint resolution condemning the government for its failure to secure Ajmal's release, and asked all media to boycott coverage of the Taliban for one week.
Newspapers were printed with a black-bordered portrait of Ajmal on April 10, and electronic media observed two minutes of silence.
Fazel Hossein Sancharaki, head of the National Union of Journalists, blamed the government for Ajmal's death.
"The government is just thinking about foreign nationals, not about its own citizens," he told IWPR. With all the power at its disposal, added Sancharaki, the government could and should have done more to gain Ajmal's release.
"After this, journalists will never feel safe, because they have no support," he said. "This will have a very negative impact on freedom of speech in Afghanistan."
Farida, a young journalist in Helmand, is a case in point. At 17, she has been a reporter for two years, even though she is still a schoolgirl.
"Many of my classmates wanted to be journalists, but when we heard about Ajmal, they all said, 'no, we don't want this'. They say, 'If they can do this to men, what can they do to us?' and now they are putting pressure on me not to work, to just stay at home," she said.
"Today it was Ajmal, tomorrow it could be any one of us," said Sabawoon, a radio journalist in Helmand. "It is getting closer and closer. When will it be my turn?"
The legislature has also come in for its share of condemnation. Engineer Abaas Nawian, a member of parliament, admits that the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house, did nothing to help.
"The Wolesi Jirga neglected this issue completely," he said. "It was not on the agenda even for an hour. When one member of parliament had his house searched, we talked about it for days.
"But regarding a journalist's life, the parliament keeps silent."
Fellow parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai agreed, saying, "I raised the issue [of Ajmal] several times in parliament, but I was told by the speaker Younus Qanuni to sit down and shut up." .
Presidential spokesman Karim Rahimi defended Karzai and his government.
Ajmal Naqshbandi, Mr. Mastrogiacomo's interpreter was beheaded by Taliban.
"We were following the issue from the very beginning, but the Taliban lied to us," he said. "We exchanged five Taliban for Mastrogiacomo and Ajmal. They brought him to the Emergency Hospital - but they did not release him."
Rahimi added that individuals believed to be involved in the case had been arrested and were being interrogated.
Observers see political machinations at work.
"Ajmal Naqshbandi is the victim of political games," said one analyst, who did not want to be named. "The winners here are Italy, America, and Pakistan. The Afghan government and the Taliban are the losers."
The release of Mastrogiacomo helped prop up the government of Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, who had been under attack at home for, among other things, sending troops to Afghanistan.
Prodi earlier warned Karzai that if Mastrogiacomo was not released, the Italian government might have to withdraw its troops from the country.
"We saw when the Italian journalist was freed, the prime minister gained a stronger position among his people," said the analyst. "And Italy announced more assistance for Afghanistan."
The Americans also benefited, he said, because, in the absence of Italy's 1,800 troops, the burden on US forces would be increased.
Pakistan, he added, gained by undermining the Karzai government. "By killing Ajmal, Taliban and the ISI [Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence] showed the Afghan people that this is a foreigners' government. Afghans are not worth anything to them."
"We asked for two Taliban commanders to be released in exchange for Ajmal Naqshbandi, but the government did not care for our demands, and today, at 3:05 p.m., we beheaded Ajmal in Garmsir district of Helmand province," said Shahabuddin Atal, who claimed to be a spokesman for regional Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah.
"When we demanded the exchange for the Italian journalist, the government released the prisoners, but for the Afghan journalist, the government did not care," Atal said.
Associated Press, April 8, 2007
If that is true, the policy seems to be working.
"Until today, despite all the dirt in our government, I was not so pessimistic," said Najibullah, a resident of Kabul. "But after Ajmal's murder, my hatred of the government increased. They could release five Taliban killers for one Italian, but they could do nothing for Ajmal.
"We do not trust this government any more. We do not trust Karzai any more."
However, the Taliban are also losing some support.
"I sympathised with the Taliban," said Mohammad Ibrahimi, from western Kabul. "I thought they were holy warriors of Islam. But now they have killed an Afghan, a Muslim. I realise that the Taliban are neither Afghans nor Muslims. They are just slaves of Pakistan."
In Helmand, too, anger against the Taliban is building.
"The Taliban are killers," said Mustafa, 22, a resident of Lashkar Gah. "This time they killed simple Afghans - a driver and a journalist. That is a very great crime."
Mohammad Aref, 28, also of Lashkar Gah, is reserving his anger for the government.
"Our government has no sense of responsibility to the people. Even if 100 people are murdered every day, it is not important for them. They are weak - trading one Italian for five Talebs shows that our government is incapable of doing anything at all."
Shah Mahmud, 42, agreed. "The government's action in exchanging the Italian for five Talebs is a very long way removed from our beliefs and customs," he said. "The people have lost faith in the government. They will never believe it after this."
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