An assembly of prominent Afghans on Sunday approved the release of hundreds of Taliban prisoners accused of serious crimes, a decision that clears the way for peace talks with the insurgent group but evokes mixed emotions among victims of their attacks.
The traditional gathering, known as a loya jirga, was convened by President Ashraf Ghani who has been under pressure from the United States to release the prisoners as part of its peace deal with the Taliban.
The agreement signed in February requires the government to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 detainees held by the Taliban before it can begin direct peace talks with the insurgents.
The government has freed most of the prisoners demanded by the Taliban, but President Ghani said releasing the last batch of about 400 prisoners with “serious cases” against them was “not within the authority of the president of Afghanistan” and referred the decision to the loya jirga comprised of more than 3,000 representatives from across the country.
The gathering was chaired by the Afghan National Reconciliation Council headed by Dr Abdullah Abdullah, which issued a preliminary statement on Saturday advising the release of the prisoners so that “there is no excuse to delay [the intra-Afghan] negotiations”.
After deliberations on the issue among 50 committees representing different interests and groups, the jirga issued a collective statement approving the prisoner release.
“War has taken a great price from us,” the statement read. “To achieve peace and stability and the end of this devastating war, we agree to the release of Taliban prisoners, conditioned that the global community guarantee the success of talks and lasting peace.”
The declaration listed several conditions and recommendations, including guarantees that freed prisoners would not resume fighting, an immediate and unconditional ceasefire, and the release of all Afghan security forces in Taliban captivity.
President Ghani assured the loya jirga that its decisions would be implemented. He said he would sign a decree to release the remaining prisoners and that the intra-Afghan talks would begin in the coming days.
However, there is scepticism about the peace process among some of those who took part in the gathering. “The Taliban has set rigid conditions for the Afghan government by demanding the release of these 400 prisoners before a long-term ceasefire can be put in place and intra-Afghan talks start,” said Mowloda Tawana, 33.
“It seems to me they are blackmailing and using unethical ways to coerce and pressure the government and Americans for their benefit,” she said.
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