KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan police have dismantled the protest camp of a hunger-striking politician and taken her to hospital, raising concerns the government may be taking a harder line on political dissent after a year of chaos and stagnation in parliament.
Former member of parliament Semin Barekzai stopped eating and moved into a tent outside parliament at the start of October to protest being stripped of her seat by poll authorities in August, nearly a year after the vote.
Her protest was into its 12th day, gathering growing Afghan and international media attention, when police abruptly ended it on Thursday night, on the order of the Interior Ministry.
It was not clear if Barekzai was continuing the hunger strike in hospital, as she could not be reached.
"There are a lot of really serious human rights violations in Afghanistan, but until now the government has been relatively tolerant of free speech, so this seems like an alarming new approach to dealing with dissent," said Heather Barr, at Human Rights Watch Afghanistan.
Hunger strikes are unusual in Afghanistan though a familiar political weapon in nearby India, and Barekzai's campaign exposed divisions on how democracy should function in the war-torn, conservative and ethnically divided country.
Top religious leaders condemned hunger strikes as un-Islamic and poll authorities said she had been fairly beaten and they could not be held responsible for her fate.
But women marched in support, and some 15 people including students and a member of parliament joined the hunger strike this week.
Barekzai's protest is the latest challenge for a troubled parliament, which over a year after a fraud marred election is still barely functioning. Her removal is likely to provoke more turmoil in the legislature.
"Some people within the parliament I can imagine going crazy about what happened, some because they support her political demands...and others because they share the use of non-violent tactics to put pressure on the government," said Fabrizio Foschino, at Afghanistan Analysts' Network.
VOLUNTARY OR FORCED?
Barekzai's supporters and the police agree that officers dismantled four tents housing the hunger strikers, but their accounts of the evening diverge otherwise.
The lawmaker who was also on hunger strike said armed police overwhelmed protesters, forced Barekzai roughly into an ambulance, and arrested some of her supporters.
"It was catastrophic," said Nelofar Ibrahimi, describing how hundreds of police -- she estimated up to 500 -- arrived around 10 p.m. (1730 GMT) and dragged away a disheveled Barekzai.
"They put her into an ambulance but with her legs still hanging out. When they closed the door she got some injuries in her legs," she added. They arrested others who had joined the hunger strike and Barekzai's husband, she added.
A police spokesman said that Barekzai went voluntarily to hospital and the tents were dismantled because there was a credible security threat against them.
"We had specific information about an attack on Barekzai and also her health was very bad so it was our duty to help her," said Hashmatullah Stanekzai, a spokesman for Kabul's police chief, who said police arrived around 8 p.m.
"A team of unarmed officers went to the tent. In a very calm conversation they persuaded Barekzai to leave the tent."
He dismissed Ibrahimi's description of hundreds of policemen, but did not say how large the team was.
Stanekzai said the Interior Ministry, which controls Afghanistan's police, ordered the "rescue" of Barekzai. The ministry could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The police account raises questions because Barekzai had repeatedly refused to go to hospital during her hunger strike, and sworn she would not eat until given back her seat in parliament, even if it caused her death.
It was not clear if she was attempting to continue her protest from a hospital bed.
Barekzai, her husband and a relative who had acted as her spokesman could not be reached on Friday, and the hospital to which she was taken blocked journalists from coming inside.
Forcing her to hospital, or forcing her to eat, would have been illegal, Barr from Human Rights Watch said.
"Taking someone to the hospital involuntarily for reasons other than a psychiatric crisis is not permitted under many different human rights conventions, which Afghanistan is a signatory to," she said.
(Editing by Martin Petty and Yoko Nishikawa)