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Deputies Disperse Afghan Meeting

Community: The hall was too small for the 1,000 people who attended, and an election to a local council never occurred.

January 28, 2002|KIMI YOSHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County sheriff's deputies dispersed 1,000 people who packed a community meeting for Afghans in Southern California after arguments broke out.

Organizers of Sunday's meeting by the Council for Peace of Afghanistan were hoping to elect 10 community representatives, but the meeting ended in disarray, with no vote. They said they were unprepared for the large turnout, including a group of hecklers they contend were pro-Taliban. But the loudest critics denied that charge, saying they were complaining because the election was rigged.

Authorities estimated the crowd at close to 1,000 in a Laguna Hills banquet hall designed for 700.

"They had more people show up than they expected. It was too much for their security," Lt. Greg Russell said. "We responded and eventually dispersed the crowd of approximately 1,000 people peacefully." Despite the confusion, several people considered the meeting a success--a signal that democracy is alive and well.

"Most people came to show that we can elect representation," said Noor Delawari, a businessman from La Canada-Flintridge who helped organize the meeting. "Every community should have representation. That's the American way of doing things .... I just wanted to participate in a process that I think is healthy."

But controversy has been brewing for weeks over exactly how Southern California Afghan residents should be represented. Those elected by this group would become part of a national council that would serve as a voice for Afghan Americans, including lobbying in Washington, and developing relations with the new government in Afghanistan.

Several meetings of Afghan American community councils have been held in Southern and Northern California, as well as other areas heavily populated with Afghans throughout the United States. In Southern California, many people criticized a previous election, saying that not enough people were informed, and that the process was not open to the public.

"This time, we did our job too good," said Laguna Hills resident Hasan Nouri, one of the election's main organizers.

"Everybody and their brother found out and they came. We got bogged down in the process, and before we knew it, it was impossible to control."

Nouri, Delawari and others said many of the critics who prevented the balloting are pro-Taliban.

"I strongly believe that the destructive elements were primarily the Taliban group," Nouri said. "They came with the mission to be an interfering agent."

One of the most vocal critics in attendance on Sunday was Sayed K. Hashemeyan, a former professor at Kabul University, now in Southern California who publishes the expatriate Afghanistan Mirror. He said he was once a strong Taliban supporter but now stands behind free elections, United States intervention and the new leadership in Afghanistan.

His concern, Hashemeyan said, was that Sunday's election in Laguna Hills was prearranged and that some candidates, including himself, were barred from running for a spot on the council. In addition, he said that only a small percentage of Southern California's 40,000 Afghans knew about the meeting.

Organizers denied those charges, and said they will try to hold an election again, in a bigger hall.

"The next time we will be better prepared," Delawari said.

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