Students protest at death sentence for Abdul Saboor when western troops are not executed for civilian deaths
Hundreds of Afghan students have demanded the release of an Afghan soldier sentenced to death for killing five French soldiers, in a rowdy protest that was a reminder of hostility to western forces and the central government in many parts of Afghanistan.
Abdul Saboor was given the death penalty by a military court for opening fire on French forces during a joint operation in eastern Kapisa province in January. The deaths contributed to France’s decision to withdraw its troops early, and highlighted the growing problem of insider attacks by Afghan police and soldiers against the foreign soldiers training them.
The shootings have become one of the biggest challenges for Nato commanders in Afghanistan. This year so far more than 60 foreigners have been killed in 45 such attacks, around 15% of military deaths in the country.
The rising trend has pushed the United States to restrict contacts with Afghan troops and raised questions about the long-term future of the training mission. Afghan forces have suffered similar or higher losses to attackers from inside their own ranks, and have stepped up screening procedures to try to limit what they see as treacherous attacks.
But about 500 university students who blocked the main highway between the capital Kabul and the eastern hub of Jalalabad for more than an hour on Monday morning described the condemned soldier as a religious warrior and champion of his people.
Although some Afghans fear that the departure of well-armed and trained foreign forces could plunge the country into chaos, many others resent them and would like them gone before a 2014 deadline.
“Foreigners, especially Americans, occupied our country, and that is why people like Saboor are trying to wage jihad against them,” said Ajratullah, a 21-year-old economics student. “The Qur’an says that when the non-believers occupy your country you have to defend it.”
Some protesters said they were angry that no western soldiers had been executed for the deaths of hundreds of Afghan civilians during a war that has now dragged on for more than a decade. A shooting spree in March by US army sergeant Robert Bales, who faces a US court martial for killing 16 civilians in their homes, has been a particular grievance, as many Afghans feel he should be tried in an Afghan court.
“The Americans and British are killing a lot of Afghan civilians and none of them are going to be hanged. So if an Afghan kills, why should he be executed, this is the biggest question for us,” said Mirwais Ghayour, a 30-year-old engineering student who helped organise the protest.
But their anger was directed at Kabul as well as foreign forces; they burned a US flag and shouted “down with the government”, and Ghayour warned there would be a “serious reaction” if the execution went ahead.
“They said don’t kill him, if you do we will continue our protests,” said Fazel Rabi, from the political science faculty, who missed the demonstration to attend a funeral but had friends there.
Jalalabad University is known to have a radical student body and is a hotbed for protests. On Monday students also protested against Israel’s recent offensive in Gaza and cross-border shelling by Pakistani forces in the same demonstration.
“If something happens anywhere in the country, if civilians are killed, or a copy of the holy Qur’an is burned, they will protest,” said Hasrat Hussain Mashraqawl, spokesman for the provincial police chief. He confirmed around 500 people attended the protest, and that it ended peacefully.