Afghan grand assembly on fate of hundreds of Taliban prisoners set for Friday

Afghanistan will convene a grand assembly of elders, known as the loya jirga, in Kabul on Friday to decide the fate of hundreds of prisoners the Taliban insist should be released before entering peace talks with the government.

A pact reached by U.S. and Taliban negotiators in Doha in February had agreed that 5,000 Taliban prisoners should be released from Afghan jails as a precondition to the militant movement holding talks with the government.

President Ashraf Ghani’s government has released all but 400, saying their crimes were too grave.

On Sunday, it declared a loya jirga, a traditional consultative gathering of elders, community leaders and politicians was needed to debate what to do with the remaining prisoners. And on Tuesday, the government fixed the date.

“These 400 are those who have been convicted in killings from two to 40 people, drug trafficking, those sentenced to death and involved in major crimes, including kidnapping,” Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the president, said.

He said a loya jirga, regarded in the constitutional as the highest expression of the Afghan people, was required as the president was not empowered to release prisoners convicted of such crimes.

Held under a giant tent, the loya jirga is a centuries-old institution used to build consensus among competing tribes, factions and ethnic groups and to discuss matters of national importance, traditionally convened under extraordinary circumstances.

On Sunday, as the government and Taliban were observing the last day of three-day ceasefire for Muslim Eid holidays, Islamic State militants launched a brazen attack at a prison in eastern Nangarhar province and freed hundreds of inmates.

The violence comes at a sensitive time for Afghanistan as the U.S. attempts to usher a peace deal between Afghan government and the Taliban to end 19-year-old war.

Since the U.S.-Taliban agreement in Febuary, 3,560 Afghan security forces personnel have been killed in attacks by militants, thousands more have been wounded, Ghani said last week.

In the same week, U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a report that more than 1,280 Afghan civilians had been killed in the first six months of the year, mainly as a result of fighting between Afghan government forces and Taliban insurgents.