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Two dozen Afghan refugees blindfolded, handcuffed and displayed in cages in Shiraz,Iran

The caging of Afghans has angered some Iranians and the Afghanistan's Ministry of Refugees and Returnees strongly condemns this inhumane treatment

This photo released by the Iranian Students' News Agency shows 'foreign nationals' who were displayed alongside contraband items - including weapons - by police in Shiraz, Iran Image Source: VOA
  • Afghan refugees were displayed in a large metal cage
  • The refugees were among some 200 foreign nationals who entered Iran illegally and were arrested
  • The Afghan government is protesting Iran’s decision to blindfold several Afghans and put them in cages

September 11,2016: The Afghan government is protesting Iran’s decision to blindfold several Afghans and put them in cages in the center of Shiraz this week.

Nearly two dozen handcuffed Afghan refugees were displayed in a large metal cage. Police also exhibited confiscated items, including weapons, explosives, drugs, alcohol and smuggled soft drinks.

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The deputy police chief of Shiraz, Nasser Keshawarz, said the refugees were among some 200 foreign nationals who entered Iran illegally and were arrested. Pictures of the public detention went viral on the internet, drawing outrage from Afghans and human rights activists, and an official diplomatic protest from Kabul.

The Afghan government is protesting Iran’s decision to blindfold several Afghans and put them in cages. Image Source: VOA

The Afghan government is protesting Iran’s decision to blindfold several Afghans and put them in cages.

“Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Returnees strongly condemns this inhumane and humiliating treatment and violation of human dignity of Afghan refugees by the Shiraz city police,” the Afghan government said in a statement. “This behavior undoubtedly contradicts Human Rights, the 1951 [Refugee] Convention, and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and stands against the bilateral refugee agreements between the two countries.”

There was no response from Tehran or on official state-run media.

Criticism of Iran

Mohammad Reza Khoshak, an Afghan parliament member from western Herat province, which borders Iran, denounced the Iranian regime.

“In Shiraz, a city well-known for its poet Saadi, who asks for equality for all humans, my fellow citizens are put in cages and mistreated in a way similar to what militants of the Islamic State do to their prisoners,” he told an Afghan newspaper.

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Well-known Afghan poet Mustafa Hazara criticized Iran on his Facebook page. “How low a human could go?” he asked. “Look, my Iranian friends, if you travel outside your geographic location [country], you would realize that the value of humans is different than what you think of.”

‘Systematic prejudice’

Roughly 3 million Afghans live in Iran. Most of them settled there after fleeing war and conflict in their homeland, and many lack basic rights and live without a formal status. About 950,000 Afghans in Iran are classified as refugees.

Iran has sent thousands of Afghan refugees, mainly ethnic Shi’ite Hazaras, to Syria to fight alongside forces of Hezbollah and Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard forces in support of the Syrian government. Dozens of Afghans have died in the Syrian war.

In his online post, Hazara asked educated Iranians to fight what he termed a systematic prejudice by Iran against Afghan refugees.

In general, Afghans living in Iran try to keep a low profile so as to not anger the regime.

“They [Iranian authorities] are very tough on us, and even one of my colleagues got a threatening message to not talk with foreign media about the incident,” Afghan journalist Kazem Sharafuddin told VOA from Mashhad.

The caging of Afghans has angered some Iranians, as well. Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s spokesperson, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, condemned the move.

“We are ashamed before Afghan people, ashamed before humanity,” Ramezanzadeh said on his Instagram account. (VOA)

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What to Make of Taliban’s Continued Rare Silence on Ghani’s Peace Offer?

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks at a panel discussion at Asia Society in Manhattan, New York, Sept. 20, 2017. VOA

Uzbekistan on Tuesday hosted an international conference on Afghanistan and offered to host peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in an effort to help end more than 16 years of war in the country.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev told senior diplomats from regional as well as NATO member states that his county was ready to host direct talks with the Taliban.

ALSO READ: Watch Video: Taliban Leader Mullah Mansoor’s Car in Flames attacked by Drone

Conference held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, March 27, 2018. VOA

“We stand ready to create all necessary conditions, at any stage of the peace process, to arrange on the territory of Uzbekistan direct talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban movement,” Mirziyoyev said at the conference.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center, and delegates stand for the national anthem during the second Kabul Process conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Feb. 28, 2018. VOA

The Taskhkent conference comes almost a month after the Kabul Process Conference in which the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered unconditional peace talks with the Afghan Taliban and pledged to recognize the insurgent group as a legitimate political party if it agreed to give up violence.

The insurgents have yet to formally respond to the Afghan government’s offer.

Expert offer different explanations to Taliban’s silence.

Rebecca Zimmerman, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, believes the apparent silence suggests there is some space for negotiations.

“In the past, they [Taliban] haven’t been shy about publicly rejecting talks for failing to meet preconditions, even while they have been having private conversations. So in this case, I think keeping a low profile means there may be some negotiation space.” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman’s analysis of the situation is not too far from the calculation of some in the Afghan government.

ALSO READ: South Asia: Afghan government to examine reports of Taliban chief’s death

Optimism inside government

Mohammad Akram Khpalwak, chief secretary of the High Peace Council, a government funded body tasked with talking to the insurgents, told reporters earlier this month that they are waiting on an official response from the Afghan Taliban and that their sources indicated that the peace offer has led to high level deliberations among insurgents about what to do with the offer.

Afghan National Security Advisor Mohammad Hanif Atmar told VOA’s Afghanistan service last week that if the Taliban need more time than they would grant it.

Afghan National Security Adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar speaks with The Associated Press in Kabul, Oct. 24, 2015. VOA

“They [Taliban] neither rejected nor accepted our offer yet,” Atmar told VOA. “If they [Taliban] need more time, they can have it. However, they [Taliban] should be aware that each day by choosing to fight, they cut a day from peace.”

P.J. Crowley, former assistant secretary for Public Affairs and spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State during Obama administration said the Taliban taking time to respond is not unprecedented.

“Going back to the process in the early stages of the Obama administration, there was months at a time where we had to determine if Taliban representation was authoritative,” Crowley said.

“The fact that there would be a conversation and then there would be a lengthy period before we got an indication that there was a response or that there were actions that led us to believe that Taliban were serious, those steps took a long time,” Crowley added.

ALSO READ: US Airstrike kills Afghan Taliban Leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, leaves no clear successor

Informal response

The Taliban did respond to a letter published in The New Yorker magazine by Barnett Rubin, an Afghan expert and associate director at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, in which Rubin urged the Afghan Taliban to accept ceasefire and talks with the Afghan government.

Without explicitly referring to the peace offer, the insurgent group offered a rather cold response arguing that Afghanistan was “occupied” and that the Kabul Process was seeking the “surrender” of the Taliban.

Speaking to VOA, Rubin said it is not about whether the Taliban want to talk or not, but rather about who they want to talk to and about what.

“U.S. says talk to the Afghan government. Taliban say they [Afghan government] are not the decision makers. That is not who overthrew us. It is the Americans. We [Taliban] want to talk to the Americans. It is pointless to talk to other Afghans until we [Taliban] solve our problems with the Americans,” Rubin said.

“So it is not talks verses no talks. It is whom do they talk to and about what,” Rubin added.

Thomas H. Johnson, author of the book “Taliban Narratives” and director of the cultural and conflict studies program at the Naval Post Graduate School echoes Rubin’s assessment that Taliban views Washington as the real power and wants to talk to the U.S.

“This position also corresponds with their narrative they have suggested since the beginning of the conflict and also served as an explicit informational response to Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. will not negotiate with the Taliban,” Johnson said.

Armed Taliban fighters are seen at an undisclosed location in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, Dec.13, 2010. VOA

“Taliban presently control more of Afghanistan since 2001 and their power and influence appear to be on the rise. It is reasonable to conclude that many Taliban including its leader Hibatullah Akhundzada believe they are winning and thus see no need for negotiation,” Johnson added.

Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based analyst with sources inside the Taliban believes their position has not changed in regards to talk with the Afghan government.

“I think they [Taliban] have time and again said that they do not want to talk to the Afghan government because it [government] does not have the real authority,” Muzhda said.

“The silence does not necessarily mean anything positive in terms of Taliban accepting the offer, as suggested by some in the High Peace Council,” he added referencing to officials’ remarks who suggested that Taliban are mulling over their response.

US position

U.S. wants the Taliban to talk to the government of Afghanistan and welcomed the Afghan government’s gesture to offer unconditional peace talks to the insurgents.

“There is a path to peace and stability with dignity for those members of the Taliban who are prepared to reject violence, end their ties with terrorists, and to accept the constitution and its provisions for minorities and women,” Alice Wells, deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia told VOA’s Uzbek service last month. VOA