Female Afghan legislator moves every night because of death threats

"They said, 'We will rape her.' They said that in parliament"

CBC News, May 14, 2006
By JASON STRAZIUSO

Movie Clip
Movie Clip of Joya's speech and attack on her
(May 7, 2006)

WMV - 4MB - 3:45Min

KABUL (AP) - A young female Afghan legislator who called powerful tribal leaders "criminals" two years ago and who last week in parliament complained there are warlords among its members now sleeps in a different house every night after a fresh influx of death threats.

Malalai Joya, 28, says her mission is to improve women's rights and expose criminal legislators in Afghanistan. She says she will continue to speak out despite any danger.

Joya received worldwide attention after first making comments against former warlords at Afghanistan's constitutional council in December 2003. Last week, she was given her first extended chance to speak in parliament since being elected in October, she said.

"I thought it's good to expose warlords, even in the national house," the 28-year-old legislator told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday. "When I came into parliament they understood I was this person that I was two years before."

After her speech last Sunday, a former mujahedeen leader named Alam Khan Ezadi stood up and asked the parliament leader why he allowed someone to insult the mujahedeen, "who sacrificed their lives to defeat the Soviets, to defeat terrorism."

Then other former mujahedeen leaders - many of whom are accused of committing human rights abuses against Afghan civilians - started shouting and walked out.

A few legislators threw plastic water bottles at Joya, and a small scuffle broke out between her supporters and detractors. No one was hurt, but Joya said deep insults were shouted at her.

"They said, 'We will rape her.' They said that in parliament," she said.

She said she overheard other mujahedeen legislators saying the outcry - which she suspects was planned, given that she had never been allowed to speak before - would prevent anyone from speaking out against former warlords in parliament again.

Ezadi, a former mujahedeen leader from Mazar-e-Sharif, denied that anyone in parliament said Joya should be raped or that any sort of insult was shouted at her. But he said the walkout was warranted.

"We are worrying about the unity of the national house because all the time she is blowing on the head of the unity in parliament," he told AP. "The mujahedeen are not small people. We fought against the Soviets, against al-Qaida. The people of Afghanistan, they voted for us to be in parliament. We did not come here by ourselves."

He said that no mujahedeen have ever threatened Joya with death. "We are Muslim. We never want to kill anyone, to have blood on our hands," he said.

Noorzea AtmarMalalai IshaqzaiParwin DuraniSafora Niazi
4 dirty pro-warlords MPs who attacked Joya in the parliament
from left to right:
Noorzia Atmar, Malalai Ishaqzai, Parvin Durrani and Safora Niazi

Nevertheless, Joya said she can't keep track of the number of death threats she's received since her first speech to the constitutional council in 2003, but that several new ones were called in to her office last week.

She normally changes locations once a week or so, but since her latest speech has been changing locations nightly. She travels with three armed bodyguards.

Mohammed Ismail Qasemyar, a former Supreme Court justice and professor of constitutional law at Kabul University, said he thinks Joya is good for the political process in Afghanistan and helps fuel the idea of freedom of expression.

"She has the right to express herself, and then the person who does not agree with her, let him also stand up and say 'No,"' said Qasemyar, a former presidential candidate. "I'm for tolerance, especially in the parliament."

In her speech, Joya distinguished between the "good" mujahedeen, those that helped Afghanistan win its freedom from the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, and the mujahedeen who committed crimes for power and money.

Qasemyar said that it's widely accepted that some Afghan legislators have committed human rights violations in the past, though he would not name names.

Joya told AP that her father lost his right leg while fighting for the mujahedeen, a fact she says she has never publicized because she does not want people to think that her fight against warlords is to avenge her father's injury.

A diminutive women only about five feet tall, Joya also speaks passionately about women's rights. She says she wonders why no one else in the country will talk about the past crimes of warlords or the current crimes committed against women.

She hopes that some of the warlords will one day have to face trial, as a "healing" of the country's injuries. In the meantime, she said she will keep speaking out.

"They know very well I will never be silent. I will never be afraid," she said. "We will all die someday."