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Afghan Hazaras Plan Protest Over Power Project

by AFP
Shah Marai—AFP

Afghans protesting the beheading of a group of Hazaras in November 2015. Shah Marai—AFP

Minority community is demanding TUTAP power line be routed through province with large Hazara population.

Thousands of minority Shia Hazaras are expected to protest in Kabul on Monday over a multimillion-dollar power transmission line, in what could potentially snowball into a political crisis for the beleaguered government.

The planned protest follows a massive rally last November galvanized by the beheadings of a group of Hazaras, which became a symbol of the broader public discontent with President Ashraf Ghani’s regime.

The TUTAP power line, which would connect the energy-rich Central Asian nations of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with Afghanistan and Pakistan, is regarded a crucial project in the electricity-starved region. But it has been mired in controversy, with leaders from the minority group demanding that the line be routed through central Bamiyan province, which has a large Hazara population.

The line was originally set to pass through Bamiyan but the government decided to reroute it through the mountainous Salang pass north of Kabul, saying the shorter route would expedite the project and save millions of dollars in costs. Hazara leaders in the ethnically divisive nation lashed out at the Pashtun president, saying the decision to reroute the line was a sign of discrimination.

“People will pour into Kabul’s streets to stage a massive protest before marching towards the presidential palace,” Hazara lawmaker Arif Rahmani told AFP. “We want the power line to cross through Bamiyan, which has seen no development in 15 years. We are demanding justice, not charity.”

Organizers of the protest expect thousands of people to participate in the rally, which comes in the midst of the Taliban’s annual spring offensive launched last month. “Staging peaceful protests is the civil right of every Afghan citizen… We respectfully request that our countrymen not allow the enemy [to] misuse this opportunity and disrupt public security,” the interior ministry said in a statement.

The dispute, which highlights the challenges of modernizing the war-torn country, threatens to overshadow TUTAP which could help ease nationwide power blackouts.

Hazara protesters repeatedly heckled Ghani during an anti-corruption summit in London last week. The president faces rising unpopularity amid endemic corruption, rampant unemployment and growing insecurity in Afghanistan.

The three million-strong Afghan Hazara community has been persecuted for decades, with thousands killed in the late 1990s by Al Qaeda and the mainly Pashtun Sunni Taliban. There has been a surge in violence against the community, with a series of kidnappings and killings in recent months that have triggered a wave of fury on social media.

In November, thousands of protesters marched coffins containing the decapitated bodies of seven Shia Hazaras through the Afghan capital. Their bodies were found in southern Zabul province, which is under Taliban control and has been the scene of clashes between rival militant factions.

Ghani called the killings “the shared pain of a nation,” and accused the militants of trying to divide Afghanistan.

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