AFGHANISTAN: Italian NGO saga continues to make waves

Emergency says reopening its hospital in Lashkargah is a top priority/IRIN

KABUL, 4 May 2010 (IRIN) – Controversy over the past and current operations of Italian aid agency Emergency is continuing throughout Afghanistan, despite the authorities having all but exonerated the NGO of wrongdoing.

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Charges against the NGO included involvement in “terrorist activities”, deliberate hospital killings and plotting to assassinate the governor of Helmand, but these have now been dropped.

Emergency’s three Italian employees, and five of its six Afghan employees were released on 18 April, but one of its Afghan employees is still being held for questioning.

“We trust our Afghan colleagues are also innocent,” Rossella Miccio, director of Emergency’s humanitarian programmes, told IRIN, adding that she was not “100 percent” sure none of the Afghans employed by Emergency was threatened or forced to do something wrong.

About 250 Afghans worked in Emergency’s 70-bed hospital in Lashkargah, capital of Helmand Province, where security procedures were not strong enough to monitor everything, Moccio said, adding: “We are 100 percent sure our international staff had nothing to do with this.”


The case has reverberated around the country, with the NGO receiving strong support in the northern Panjshir Province where over 16,000 people signed a petition for the Italians’ release.

Former Northern Alliance leaders such as Mohammad Yonus Qanooni, now chairman of parliament’s lower house, and Ahmad Zia Masoud, former vice-president, met officials from the NGO in Panjshir to declare their support, Miccio said.

Others have been more critical of the government’s handling of the case.

“The Italians’ quick and unconditional release was rather due to pressure from inside and outside the country than to transparent legal and investigative procedures,” said Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament.

“Perhaps they were released for national interest reasons,” Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman of the governor of Helmand, told IRIN, adding that the evidence against the foreign aid workers was “very strong and correct”.

The NGO wants to reopen its hospital in Lashkargah as soon as possible but needs assurances from the Afghan authorities, particularly from the governor of Helmand, Golab Mangal.

“It would be nice if he [Mangal] were to apologize but we have not asked for that,” said Miccio, adding that the governor’s support for the hospital’s reopening was crucial.

But Ahmadi was adamant the governor would not apologize. “In fact, we want an apology from Emergency for the misdeeds of its staff in Helmand.”

He said the provincial authorities were not opposed to the reopening of Emergency’s hospital in Lashkargah but demanded the NGO be transparent in its activities.

“We have no problem with Emergency providing health care to wounded Taliban fighters but we don’t want the hospital staff to be involved in arms smuggling and other terrorist activities,” he said.

Controversial mediation role

Another bone of contention raised by the Emergency case is the extent to which NGOs should be allowed to strike or broker deals with the Taliban.

Emergency confirmed it brokered a deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban in April 2007 in which five Taliban prisoners were swapped for a kidnapped Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, but his Afghan colleague and translator, Ajmal Naqshbandi, was killed.

“We were just asked by our Foreign Ministry to take care of that [kidnapping] because they were unable to contact the Taliban and Emergency was the only humanitarian actor on the ground,” said Miccio.

Afghans, including Naqshbandi’s family, accuse Emergency of facilitating a “malicious deal” which aimed only to release Mastrogiacomo.

Emergency rejects the accusation and says it mediated in good faith for the release of both abductees.

Naqshbandi was later beheaded by the Taliban apparently because Kabul refused to swap more prisoners for his release.

Emergency officials insist the controversial go-between role they played at the behest of Italy’s Foreign Ministry was not against the principles of the humanitarian health work they are mandated to do.

Miccio said, if asked, her organization would consider playing similar intermediary roles in future “in order to save lives”.

However, experts say humanitarian workers do not have a mandate to mediate in abduction cases, particularly under instructions from a belligerent government.

“A humanitarian NGO should not mediate directly to end a kidnapping situation,” said Edward Burke, a researcher at Fride, a Madrid-based think-tank. He said NGOs should avoid the political risks inherent in such negotiations and let governments and tribal elders handle them.

“The delivery of health services is the domain in which they [humanitarian workers] must operate,” said Peter Graaff, a representative of the UN World Health Organization in Afghanistan.


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]