KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s top electoral body has barred 35 candidates from running in upcoming parliamentary polls, officials said, in a move seen as a first major attempt to crack down on links between armed groups and lawmakers. The Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) issued a statement with the names of the disqualified candidates – including serving MPs – after it said they were found to have direct links with illegal armed groups. Most of those barred have already lodged appeals against the move. Officials at the IECC said the final list was the result of a month-long probe launched after its office received complaints against hundreds of candidates from voters in 34 provinces. Some candidates were alleged to have been involved in cases of murder, rape and extortion. “We disqualified the candidates because we want to clean the process and finally hold free and fair elections,” said Alirez Rohani, the spokesman of IECC. October’s vote, already much-delayed, is seen as a crucial test for democracy in a country that has been at war for four decades. It comes amid increasing attacks by Taliban and Islamic State insurgents, however, who have threatened to target the electoral process. The polls are seen as a dry run for next year’s presidential election and a key test of the credibility of President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which has been under pressure from its international backers to ensure the vote takes place after the last presidential election in 2014 was deemed to have been tainted by fraud. Diplomats tracking the upcoming elections said they backed the IECC to ensure transparency and accuracy. But the latest decision will trigger political turmoil, particularly as some of those named are influential lawmakers and strongmen. Most of the disqualified candidates have lodged appeals against the decision and were planning to launch a nationwide protest against the IECC. “The IECC did not even provide the opportunity to the disqualified candidates to defend themselves,” said Fawzia Kofi, a lawmaker from Badakhshan province on the list. Kofi, who has been accused of funding an armed group to retain control over her constituency, has rejected the allegations against her. “These are politically motivated accusations. My supporters will start a protest march to prove my innocence,” Kofi said.
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