ISIS group targets religious minorities in Afghanistan – HRW

The Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Islamic State’s (ISIS) affiliate in Afghanistan, has repeatedly attacked Hazaras and other religious minorities at their mosques, schools, and workplaces, Human Rights Watch said today. The Taliban authorities have done little to protect these communities from suicide bombings and other unlawful attacks or to provide necessary medical care and other assistance to victims and their families.

Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, the Islamic State affiliate has claimed responsibility for 13 attacks against Hazaras and has been linked to at least 3 more, killing and injuring at least 700 people. The Taliban’s growing crackdown on the media, especially in the provinces, means additional attacks are likely to have gone unreported. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported that recent attacks by the group on Shia gatherings in Kabul killed and injured more than 120 people.

“Since the Taliban takeover, ISIS-linked fighters have committed numerous brutal attacks against members of the Hazara community as they go to school, to work, or to pray, without a serious response from the Taliban authorities,” said Fereshta Abbasi, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Taliban have an obligation to protect at-risk communities and assist the victims of attacks and their families.”

The Hazara are a predominantly Shia Muslim ethnic group that have faced discrimination and abuse by successive Afghan governments for over a century. During the 1990s, Taliban forces targeted the Shia for mass killings and other serious abuses. With the Taliban back in power, the Hazara have been increasingly concerned for their safety and whether the new authorities will protect them. “The Taliban never liked Hazaras,” said one Hazara community member in Bamyan province. “Last time they were in power, they killed many of us.”

In October 2021, the Taliban Interior Ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khosty, said that they would ensure security for religious minorities: “As a responsible government, we are responsible for protecting all citizens of Afghanistan, especially the country’s religious minorities.” However, the Taliban do not appear to have provided increased security in Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, and Kunduz provinces, where attacks have killed hundreds of people since January 2022.

Human Rights Watch remotely interviewed 21 survivors of attacks, and family members of victims, in Kabul and Mazar provinces between April and July, using secure communications.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the April 19 suicide bombing at Abdul Rahim Shahid High School in the west Kabul neighborhood of Dasht-e Barchi – a predominantly Hazara and Shia area – that killed and injured 20 students, teachers, and staff. “There were dead bodies everywhere,” said a survivor. “Bodies were split into pieces, and you could smell blood.”

The group also claimed responsibility for the April 21 suicide bombing of one of Afghanistan’s largest Shia mosques, Seh Dokan Mosque in Mazar-e Sharif, which killed 31 people and wounded 87 others. On April 27, unidentified men killed 5 Hazara men on their way to the Dare-Suf coal mine in Samangan province. The next day, a bomb explosion killed 9 people and wounded 13 others in a minibus carrying Hazara passengers in Mazar-e Sharif.

A Hazara resident of Kabul who had witnessed many previous attacks said: “Our children need to go to school, our women need to visit hospitals, we want to go to mosques. For all these, we need to feel safe. For God’s sake, these places cannot be targets – stop killing us everywhere.”

Richard Bennett, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, called on May 26 for investigations into the attacks on Hazara, Shia, and Sufi communities. He said they were “becoming increasingly systematic in nature and reflect elements of an organizational policy, thus bearing hallmarks of crimes against humanity.”

The attacks, beyond their immediate devastation, take a terrible long-term toll on the survivors and families of victims, depriving them of breadwinners, often imposing severe medical burdens, and restricting their access to daily life. “We do not send our children to school anymore, and we close our shops early,” said a man who lost his 45-year-old brother in the Seh Dokan Mosque attack. “The mosque has also been closed since the attack.”

For women, losing a male family member has particularly dire social and economic consequences, especially for young women who are suddenly widowed. Taliban restrictions on women’s rights to work and to move freely have made it impossible for some women to earn a living and become financially independent. Regulations requiring women to be accompanied by a mahram (male blood-relative) while travelling have made it extremely difficult for women to go about everyday tasks and add to the trauma they already face.

“My loved one has passed away,” said a woman who lost her husband in a magnetic bomb explosion in Dasht-e Barchi in Kabul soon after the Taliban takeover. “Even though I have a degree, it’s now hard for women to find employment and establish financial independence under the Taliban.”

Most of those whom Human Rights Watch interviewed also said they experienced depression and severe trauma as a result of the attacks.

Attacks on Hazara and other religious minorities by the Islamic State of Khorasan Province violate international humanitarian law, which remains applicable in Afghanistan. Deliberate attacks on civilians are war crimes. Beyond the immediate loss of life, such attacks cause long-term economic hardship, incur lasting damage to physical and mental health, and result in new barriers to education and public life.

The Taliban’s failure to provide security to at-risk populations and medical and other assistance to survivors and affected families, as well as Taliban policies that violate human rights, particularly those of women and girls, exacerbates the harm these attacks cause.

“Armed group leaders may one day face justice for their atrocities against Hazaras and other communities,” Abbasi said. “Taliban officials who fail to take action to protect religious minorities from attack may be complicit in these grave crimes.”

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