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Afghanistan: Vocal 'Warlord' Critic Seeks To Reverse Her Expulsion From Legislature

By Farangis Najibullah

She's been called "the bravest woman in Afghanistan" for her criticism of warlords, and even compared to Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar's democracy movement. Now, Malalai Joya's courage is again being put to the test.

After being expelled from parliament in May for allegedly insulting her fellow deputies, Joya has launched a bid to regain her seat. Joya told reporters on April 5 that she has always been determined to get the expulsion overturned, and that she is finally ready to take her battle all the way to Afghanistan's highest legal body, the Supreme Court.

She says her suspension from parliament violated her freedom of speech, democratic values as well as the Afghan Constitution. "The reason it took me so long to appeal against my expulsion was mostly due to security issues," the 29-year-old says. "There was also a financial reason. Defense lawyers asked for an amount of money that I couldn't afford."

Joya became a lightning rod for controversy through her harsh criticism of former warlords, whom she says hold key positions in the government and parliament. "Instead of getting influential positions in the government and dominating the parliament, the former warlords should be tried and punished for their actions," Joya has said.

Afghanistan's parliament passed an amnesty law in March 2007 that prevents the state from independently prosecuting people for war crimes committed during conflicts in recent decades. Supporters say the law will help bring national reconciliation, but critics say alleged war criminals in the parliament were simply shielding themselves from prosecution.

Following a television interview she gave two months after passage of the amnesty, Afghan lawmakers voted to suspend Joya for three years -- although their authority to take such a step was immediately questioned. But the move effectively expelled Joya from the current parliament, whose five-year mandate is scheduled to end in 2010, although it could end sooner.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaking at a news conference in Kabul on April 6, suggested that the parliamentary polls could be moved up by one year to run in conjunction with presidential elections set for 2009 and therefore save money. Karzai also indicated that he intends to run for reelection.

In her interview in May 2007 to Tolo television, Joya compared the parliament to a stable full of animals.

Joya has steadfastly refused to apologize for the comment. On April 5, she reiterated her criticism of legislators, saying she could count the number of honest ones on her fingers. The others, she said, were organized crime figures, drug dealers, and other criminal elements.

Vocal Critic

Joya, a women's rights worker from Farah Province, first gained international prominence in December 2003, when she harshly criticized the dominance of warlords during the Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, which had convened to ratify the new Afghan Constitution.

Her remarks sparked outraged among many prominent figures, including the chief of the Loya Jirga, Sibghatullah Mojaddadi, who called Joya an "infidel" and a "communist."

Since then, Joya has reportedly survived four assassination attempts. However, she has said that she is not afraid of death threats, and vowed to continue her mission to fight for women's rights.

Joya, the daughter of a former medical student, spent most of her childhood in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. She returned to Afghanistan in 1998, during the Taliban's reign, and established an orphanage and health clinic. She later became the head of the Organization of Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities, an NGO that operates in the provinces of Farah and Herat.

Symbol...For Some

Joya's supporters compare her to Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the symbol of Burma's democratic movement. But her critics allege that during her trips to the West, Joya merely promotes herself and does not try to attract aid or investment to impoverished Farah, the province that elected her to parliament.

Joya's lawyer, Mohammad Zaman, says he believes Joya will win her parliamentary seat back. However, others are less optimistic.

Nasrullah Stanakzai, a law professor at Kabul University, says that while the decision to suspend Joya was a violation of the law, lawmakers would find a way to keep Joya out of the legislature.

"Although it is too early to say how the court would decide on this case, I think the court will come under political pressure from parliament," Stanakzai says. "Parliament or the Afghan government can start a political game against Malalai, if they want to do so. For instance, they would drag the court procedure out for very long time -- until the end of this parliament's term -- and Malalai Joya will be deprived of her right to reenter the parliament."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ahmad Takal contributed to this report

Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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