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RFE/RL, April 15, 2010

Kabul Alarmed By Iran’s Executions Of Afghan Prisoners

Last month, a delegation of Afghan lawmakers returned from Iran with news that 5,630 Afghans were imprisoned there, more than half of them -- 3,000 -- on death row.

In Koshan, along western Afghanistan's border with Iran, Arbab Zarif has just buried his brother.

Iran executes Afghan prisoners
A screen grab of materials from a conference on Afghan youths executed in Iran in October 2009

"Look how they hurt us," he says. "Look what is happening to us."

Zarif's brother was executed in Iran for allegedly trafficking drugs. He says he had no defense lawyer and that Iranian authorities then added insult to tragedy.

"[The Iranians] asked for [$100] to get the body back," he tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "So I borrowed [$100] and we gave it to get my brother's body back."

In Ghorian, a different district of Afghanistan's Herat Province abutting Iran, Mohammad Naseem Rahmani tells a similar story.

Rahmani says his brother Abdulqaium was buried this week in Ghorian after Iran executed him and returned his body to the family.

He says Abdulqaium was convicted of drug trafficking and that he wasn't able to visit his brother in prison because he lacks documents.

"Yes, my brother was 33; his name was Abdulqaium; he had four children," Rahmani says. "After he was arrested, there was no one to help him and finally they gave him a death sentence."

Afghan officials say three Afghan prisoners alleged to have been involved in drug smuggling have been executed in Iran in recent weeks.

But worry and anger has been growing in Afghanistan over allegations that Iran sent the bodies of more than 40 executed Afghan prisoners back to Afghanistan.

Source Of Embarrassment?

Iranian officials have not yet commented on the issue, while the Afghan government says it is investigating the reports.

Speaking at a press conference today in Kabul, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Zahir Faqiri said a high-ranking ministry delegation will travel to Iran shortly to address the issue with Iranian officials.

"These reports shocked the Afghan government and the Foreign Ministry of Afghanistan is seriously following the issue through diplomatic and security sources," Faqiri said. "The preliminary investigation shows that those numbers of executions are a bit exaggerated. This matter, however, concerns the Afghan government, and the diplomatic and consular officials of Afghanistan in Iran were tasked to raise the issue with Iranian authorities with total seriousness."

The allegations were echoed nationwide on April 12, when Gul Ahmad Amini, a lawmaker from Herat, addressed the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga.

Amini said the bodies of 45 executed Afghans have been repatriated.

"I think this is a cruel act and people expect that talks on this issue should not stop and should be taken seriously," Amini said, adding that 30 bodies arrived in Afghanistan one night and 15 others the next night. "These are the nationals of Afghanistan -- they execute them outside the country and then send the bodies in [to Afghanistan]."

Mulawy Gulam Farooq Huseni, a spokesman for the Council of Religious Scholars of Herat, tells RFE/RL that his own information suggests 42 Afghans* have been executed.

But he adds that 18 more Afghans are awaiting execution in a border area.

"The exact number of Afghan youth martyred by Iranian government executioners and vampires is 42, and according to other reports, 18 other honored sons of Afghans were moved to Tayebad area to be martyred [executed]," Huseni says. "My request to all human rights groups around the world is to help the oppressed Afghan nation, and to convince these executioners and vampires not to execute Afghans any more."

The head of the Experts' Council of Herat, Mohammad Rafiq Shaheer, says it's not the first time that Iran has executed Afghan prisoners.

But this time, he tells RFE/RL, the issue has gained particular resonance and is causing embarrassment to the Afghan government:

"This number was big in the past, too, but there was no problem; now we're sure that the numbers are big, that's why this issue was raised," Shaheer says. "The government doesn't want to confirm [that] because Iran's relations with [President Hamid] Karzai are very close, and perhaps President Karzai doesn't want to make the issue very big. At the same time, defending the rights of Afghans living abroad is under the responsibility of the government. If such a big number of [Afghans] are executed at once and the government doesn't take action, the government would be blamed."

Thousands More On Death Row

The reports on the execution of Afghan prisoners are yet another cause of concern for many people in Afghanistan who have relatives living in Iran.

Economic hardship and insecurity have led many Afghans to look across the country's porous 1,000-kilometer border with Iran. There are nearly 1 million documented Afghan refugees in Iran, and estimates suggest that more than half a million more undocumented Afghan refugees live there.

Some are employed as manual laborers. But many find themselves ferrying narcotics from Afghanistan, which feeds much of the world's heroin trade, to Iran.

Traffickers are routinely sentenced to death in Iran, one of the world's leading executioners.

In recent days, Iranian news agencies reported that a total of eight men convicted of drug trafficking had been executed -- three in the central city of Isfahan on April 11 and five in the northeastern city of Mashhad on April 10. The identities of the executed inmates were not revealed.

It is unclear how many Afghans have been jailed in Iran or how many of them are on death row.

Last month, a delegation of Afghan lawmakers returned from Iran with news that 5,630 Afghans were imprisoned there, more than half of them -- 3,000 -- on death row.

Iranian authorities denied that figure, but Afghan lawmakers debated the issue and sought ways to ensure the fair treatment of Afghans living in Iran and to secure the return of prisoners.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Nader Naderi, of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), expresses concern about the treatment of Afghans by the Iranian judiciary.

"If the execution of this high number of Afghans is true, we are really concerned about it," Naderi says. "The main question is whether these people were tried in a fair and just court, whether they were allowed to obtain attorney[s], and whether the attorney has defended their rights in the presence of an Iranian court."

The prisoner issue was also raised with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad during his recent visit to Kabul. Afghan lawmakers say Ahmadinejad promised to advocate the handover of Afghan prisoners to Afghanistan.

Written by correspondent Antoine Blua with contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan

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