Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Tuesday hit out at his own intelligence agency for detaining two activists who broke the story of an alleged massive paedophile ring operating in the country’s schools.
Ghani said he was “deeply disturbed about the recent reports on sexual abuse” in six schools in Logar province bordering Kabul, which were brought to light by a youth social worker, Musa Mahmudi.
Mahmudi told Britain’s Guardian newspaper this month that at least 546 boys had been allegedly abused by a pedophile ring involving teachers and local officials – allegations that sparked national outrage.
But Mahmudi and a colleague, Ehsanullah Hamidi, were arrested last week on suspicion of threatening public order, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) said Tuesday.
The NDS said Mahmudi’s claims were part of a scheme aimed at securing asylum in a foreign country, blasting the report as “baseless” and predicated on “unfounded allegations.”
The Afghan spy agency also released a video of Mahmudi appearing to retract his account. However, it was not clear if he was speaking under duress.
But Ghani ordered the NDS to “stop the proceedings.”
“The protection of civil society and human rights defenders is the sole responsibility of the security forces,” the president said in a series of tweets.
Presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said Ghani had ordered that the activists be handed over to the interior ministry for their “protection.”
The US ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, said he was “deeply disturbed by these Soviet-style tactics” of the NDS.
“It’s appalling to coerce confessions from civil society activists whose goal is to protect #Afghan children,” he added on Twitter.
Ghani asks for probe
The Guardian’s report included abuse accounts from some of the victims. Some of them also spoke to The New York Times and the independent Afghan news channel ToloNews.
Some alleged victims of the pedophile ring went on to be murdered, The Guardian reported, adding that rights campaigners had uncovered more than 100 videos of the abuse.
Ghani said such cases should be “investigated by the attorney general’s office and the AIHRC” – the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
He also called upon the education ministry to investigate and provide him with a report “ASAP.”
Amnesty International had called for the release of Mahmudi and his colleague on Monday.
The rights watchdog on Tuesday released text messages sent by Mahmudi before he was taken into custody, saying “the NDS is trying to arrest me and put all the blame on me.”
Mahmudi told Amnesty he had received death threats accusing him of “dishonoring the people of Logar.”
The two men were detained Thursday as they headed to a meeting with the European Union ambassador in Kabul, Amnesty said.
Hamidi’s role in revealing the scandal was not immediately clear, and there is no reference to him in the Guardian story.
Parts of Afghanistan still tolerate the practice of bacha bazi, or “boy play,” where older men force boys to dress up as women and often sexually exploit them.
In 2017, the country introduced measures that criminalized the sexual abuse of minors, following reporting on bacha bazi by several media outlets including AFP.