Afghan man on Taliban death list refused asylum

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The Independent Online

Sultan Mahmood is under a death sentence from the Taliban. The torture they inflicted on him has led to a leg being amputated. His teenage son was kidnapped and beheaded. A school he ran has been burned down.

But the British Government has now decided that the 70-year-old former army officer will be safe back in Afghanistan and he must go back. He has been told by the UK Border Agency that he has until 10 June to leave after his application for asylum was rejected.

The Independent learned of Colonel Mahmood's predicament from Whitehall officials with knowledge of the current situation in Afghanistan. They believe that he will face very real danger of being harmed back in his country.

Col Mahmood was refused asylum despite doctors from the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture saying they were convinced he had been subjected to extreme physical abuse and was now suffering from serious mental trauma. The judge at his immigration tribunal stressed that he accepted Col Mahmood's account of his ordeal as "credible and genuine" and recognised that the former officer "has a major disability and major psychological illnesses". The authorities, he acknowledged, would not be able to protect him if he returned to his home village.

However, in his ruling on 5 March, Judge Elvidge concluded that although he had "great sympathy for the appellant" he would have to apply the law as it stands. Col Mahmood, he stated, should be sent to the Afghan capital Kabul. He accepted the Home Office's argument that "the objective evidence is that while the Taliban are growing in strength and influence, there is still sufficient state protection in Kabul".

The Afghan capital has experienced seven major Taliban attacks in the last year, including one on a United Nations guest house in which 11 people were killed, leading to the organisation evacuating all but essential staff from the country.

Col Mahmood's brother, Shah Wali, who lives in London, went to Kabul two years ago. During his visit he was shot in the stomach. Shah Wali Mahmood presented evidence of his injury to the tribunal which was accepted by the judge.

Col Mahmood, who has been in England for three years, says there is no one in Kabul who can support him. His wife, Bibi Khanam, and their three daughters fled to Pakistan after the murder of their son which followed the demand of a local Taliban commander that one of the daughters should be given to him in marriage.

Col Mahmood was a member of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a Marxist organisation, while serving as helicopter pilot in the Air Force. After the government was overthrown in 1992 he left Kabul with his family for the village of Zamankhail, a place named after his grandfather, in Wardak province.

The Taliban took over Wardak from the Mujahideen in the mid 1990s, and their local leader, Mullah Sabir, told Col Mahmood that he must start flying helicopters for the Talibs in impending operations. His refusal led to imprisonment and torture. His right leg was so severely damaged that it had to be amputated above the knee.

Col Mahmood continued to live in Zamankhail, keeping a low profile. He seemed to have been left alone by the Taliban who no longer had any use for him as a pilot because of his disability.

In 2001, after the overthrow of Mullah Omar's regime following the invasion led by US and British forces, Col Mahmood was asked by the village council to open a school in the area which would offer girls' education banned under the Taliban.

As the security situation deteriorated in Afghanistan resurgent Taliban infiltrated back into Wardak. "Night letters" began to appear threatening those associated with the school unless it was shut down and, soon afterwards, his son was abducted.

According to Col Mahmood, and the witnesses who appeared for him in the immigration tribunal, a local elder carrying out negotiations with the insurgents told Col Mahmood that a senior Taliban commander promised his son's return in exchange for his elder daughter Deva, then aged 15.

Col Mahmood and his wife refused the demand. His son, Mohammed Zaman, was subsequently beheaded, and his mutilated body left in a sack outside the school, which was later burned down.

Col Mahmood said yesterday: "I am very afraid for the future. I have not been able to sleep properly since I was told that I would have to leave. The judge said he believed me and all the people who spoke up for me. So I do not understand why they are doing this to me."

His solicitors are seeking leave to appeal against the decision.