Serious allegations arise over Afghan cyclist evacuations
A CyclingTips investigation reveals the bullying and blackmail allegations behind a UCI- and Afghan Cycling Federation-led convoy.
A CyclingTips investigation reveals the bullying and blackmail allegations behind a UCI- and Afghan Cycling Federation-led convoy.
In reporting spanning several weeks, multiple sources have told CyclingTips of their belief that a UCI-led evacuation flight list was manipulated by the Afghan Cycling Federation to favour family and friends, with attempts to silence dissenting voices.
In the process, multiple threatened members of the Afghan national team – both women and men – have been left behind.
At the core of this story lies a thorny moral dilemma. There’s a country in a state of collapse, and lives at stake. There are cyclists being rescued, and cyclists being left behind. There are acts of love, and acts of corruption. There is good, and there is bad – and if you look at this story long enough, they start looking like the same thing.
In post-US Afghanistan – where 665,000 people have been displaced in 2021 alone, and over half of the population lives in acute poverty – there are many questions and no easy answers.
As the Taliban tightens its grip on the country, persecution faces those that had been symbolic of the “new Afghanistan”. Counted on that list: cyclists, especially female ones, that were public faces of Afghanistan’s progress, and are now in hiding, or in exile, or living in fear.
In post-US Afghanistan, there are many questions and no easy answers.
After the collapse of Kabul, numerous foreign actors set to work to rescue them, negotiating for visas and seats in evacuation convoys. The public pinnacle of this work came in early October, with a rescue flight of 125 people coordinated by the International Cycling Union (UCI), the Afghan Cycling Federation, Israel Start-Up Nation team owner (and Canadian billionaire) Silvan Adams, and the Israeli not-for-profit IsraAid.
It was a rare good news story out of Afghanistan, with a cinematic quality to it – a risky, high-stakes evacuation of stricken souls, underpinned by the financial backing of a billionaire and involving delicate diplomatic negotiations across half a dozen governments. A “hallucinatory exfiltration”, Swiss media called it.
But in the weeks since, a less appetising story has begun to emerge.
Multiple sources have told CyclingTips of their concerns about the transparency of the exercise. They tell the story of a great PR moment, wallpapering over an alleged backdrop of bullying and blackmail.
The UCI convoy was based on a list of 125 people; a “life-and-death effort to save the most vulnerable athletes and their families, along with other Afghans who feared reprisals from the Taliban”, the UCI told CyclingTips. “The priority was first to save lives.”
According to UCI President David Lappartient, half of the 125 people in the convoy were “cyclists – female cyclists or members of the cycling family … two-thirds of the list was proposed by UCI and one-third by IsraAid and we joined forces for this.”
This passenger list was initially informed by discussions with stakeholders, including Shannon Galpin – a humanitarian and activist who has spent a decade working on women’s rights projects in Afghanistan – and Fazli Ahmad Fazli, the current president of the Afghan Cycling Federation.
Until his own evacuation, Fazli, who became president of the Federation in 2019, split his time between Istanbul, Turkey, and Kabul, Afghanistan – two cities in which he owns travel agencies. He now has asylum in Switzerland via the UCI, along with his wife and six children – part of a cohort of 38 Afghans that have Swiss visas.
“I wanted to be sure that all of [those in the convoy] were cyclists, and not family members and so on, that they were really cyclists,” Lappartient told CyclingNews in an interview after the evacuation, noting the conflict between this statement and the fact that Fazli’s family had been evacuated (Lappartient says at his bidding, not Fazli’s). The list, he says, prioritised cyclists in the most immediate danger from the Taliban.
Multiple sources have told CyclingTips, however, of their belief that the list was manipulated by the Afghan Cycling Federation to favour family and friends, with attempts to silence dissenting voices. In the process, multiple threatened members of the Afghan national team – both women and men – have been left behind.
One male Afghan cyclist, “Amin” – who is a national team member and worked closely with the Afghan Cycling Federation – is one of those that didn’t make it onto the passenger list. He now finds himself stuck in limbo, a refugee waiting for an evacuation that may never come.
Amin, whose name we have changed to protect his anonymity, says that of the 125 people in the UCI-led convoy, he recognised at most 24 of them as cyclists – four men, the rest women – with many more stranded in the country or having fled across the border.
Amin told CyclingTips that despite being a national team member, he had never been issued with a UCI member card – which is important, because it was one of the ways that athletes could demonstrate their eligibility for a place in the convoy. He says that he believes the Federation issued cards to non-cyclists, claiming them as athletes or staff of the Federation – a small organisation with just a handful of individuals conducting the majority of the work.
Another cyclist told CyclingTips that, after he had fled across the border in the wake of the Taliban takeover, he had been told to send payment for a UCI card. CyclingTips has seen a copy of an initial evacuation list with his name on it. But lacking resources to make the payment for the UCI card, he says the Federation removed his name from the evacuation list. Now, increasingly desperate and lacking proof of his legitimacy, he has been stranded for months and is unable to get a response from the Federation.
[In response to these allegations, Fazli claimed that the Federation issued UCI cards to all members on its list of registered athletes.]
“The priority was first to save lives.”-UCI
The legitimacy of the final lists has been disputed, too.
Among the people on the final convoy list, Amin alleges, are friends and family of senior members of the Afghan Federation. He provided a list of names that, he says, include Fazli’s brother, Fazli’s brother-in-law (a tradesperson), and an IT staff member at Fazli’s travel agency. A friend of Fazli’s – his local baker – also allegedly made the cut. CyclingTips can confirm that the names Amin provided appear on the final UCI evacuation list, but we are choosing not to publicly identify them here.
[Contacted by CyclingTips, Fazli appeared to confirm each of those individuals’ relationship to him, but claimed that they were all ACF staff members or riders. He also said that the list of evacuees comprised “riders and ACF management”, and denied providing priority access to the convoy to staff members of his travel agency.]
When Fazli was challenged on the composition of the list by one cyclist, he issued a thinly veiled threat in response: he had the power to remove any of those questioning him from the evacuation lists, and tell the UCI that there was no need for another convoy. [CyclingTips has obtained a copy of this voice message, and been provided with a translation.]
That threatening behaviour has echoes elsewhere.
After Fazli learned that CyclingTips had approached Afghan cyclists for comment, the Afghan Cycling Federation account published this reporter’s phone number on Twitter. Hours later, in a voicemail sent to a group of Afghan cyclists, Fazli ordered anyone who’d been speaking to the media to reveal themselves, and again threatened to go to the UCI and ask for memberships to be suspended – thus removing eligibility for evacuation.
Then came a series of extraordinary social media posts. One accused a prominent Afghan female cyclist of fraud; another declared that any fundraising initiatives by non-Federation groups were “created to gain money for their own profits”; a third accused Shannon Galpin of mental illness.
[Speaking to CyclingTips, Fazli said that “we never threat[ened] riders [but] sometimes there are riders who creates fundraising on women team and use for personal use so we issued press release to avoid such activities.”]
Those who made it onto the convoy have their freedom, but have effectively been silenced by the Federation – Fazli has allegedly issued a blanket media ban. Meanwhile, Afghan cyclists that haven’t made their way onto a convoy are in an increasingly tenuous situation.
CyclingTips is aware of groups of card-carrying ACF cyclists that are stranded in Iran, Pakistan, and in hiding in Afghanistan. Each of these groups say that the Federation has stopped responding to their requests for help.
CyclingTips has seen two versions of the list – one proposed, one final – that was used for the UCI evacuation flight, with around two-thirds of the names designated as ‘UCI’. Amin’s belief that just 24 out of 125 were cyclists differs dramatically from Lappartient’s belief that half of the list were cyclists. It also underlines the difficulty in identification: with this scale, distance and urgency, people’s lives are distilled down to a list of names on a spreadsheet.
Hovering over this entire mess is the question of who qualifies as a “real cyclist”, and who wrote the final list used for the UCI evacuation convoy.
In both of those cases, the Federation was the final arbitrator: as one Afghan source, now based in the US, put it, “the UCI doesn’t know all of these people – they rely on Fazli to provide this information.”
The UCI said as much in a statement provided to CyclingTips: “It was at the request of the UCI that the Afghan Federation provided us with a list when Kabul was taken over by the Taliban … The Afghan Cycling Federation and its president were the best-placed to identify riders at risk and establish a list of priority evacuations.”
But there’s a treacherous trust underpinning that: what happens if you can’t rely on the accuracy of the Federation’s records or its transparency? And what if they have demonstrated a repeated tendency to bully and silence those that don’t toe their line?
“If you’re in Fazli’s camp, you’re a cyclist. If you’re not, you’re not a cyclist.”-Afghan source
The Federation has had clouds hanging over it in the past. A previous president, Abdul Sadiq Sadiqi, was ousted after it was alleged he’d used the Afghan women’s team as a front for people smuggling and prostitution, and married three young members of the team. It was also alleged that he had seized bikes intended for the Afghan women’s team.
Today, the overt gender discrimination and criminality is gone, but sources say the Afghan Federation retains a tight grip on cycling in the country. One Afghan cyclist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “the Afghan Federation assumes a monopolistic position – they want the final word on whether someone’s a cyclist or not.
“Anything under the banner of cycling – they want it to be under their control. If you’re in Fazli’s camp, you’re a cyclist. If you’re not, you’re not a cyclist.”
When it came to the writing of the evacuation convoy lists, that distinction became critically important – and the push for Federation control over the cyclists of Afghanistan has become increasingly heavy-handed.
[In a statement to CyclingTips, the UCI said that “concerns that were voiced to the UCI related to the former management of Afghanistan’s Cycling Federation, and were in no way directed at the current President, Mr Fazli Ahmad Fazli, whose priority was the evacuation of athletes in the middle of a crisis.” CyclingTips is aware of multiple emails and social media posts addressed to the UCI voicing concerns about the current Federation management, and Fazli.]
These seemingly petty bureaucratic tussles are overlaid on the complex sociopolitical context of Afghanistan, where being a real cyclist (or not) is just one of the ways that you can run into trouble.
Shannon Galpin – who established the first Afghan women’s cycling team a decade ago and has travelled to Afghanistan more than 20 times, often working in Bamiyan province – explains that there are two further levels of discrimination to navigate here: ethnic and gender-based. The Hazara – who are Shi’ite Muslims and seen by the Sunni Taliban as infidels – are a majority in Bamiyan, so female cyclists in Bamiyan are endangered on three fronts.
And yet, despite Lappartient’s assurance that those most at threat from the Taliban were prioritised for evacuation, there are still Hazara female cyclists from Bamiyan pleading for help.
Galpin, who collaborated with IsraAid for an initial convoy of 45 female Hazara cyclists, was brought in by Silvan Adams to advise the composition of the UCI’s list. In an email viewed by CyclingTips, Adams introduced Galpin to Lappartient and highlighted the humanitarian importance of the mission. “It doesn’t much matter if we err by bringing more women (than strictly competitive cyclists) out of Afghanistan if they otherwise have some connection to the group,” he wrote to Lappartient. “Sadly, we cannot save all of the women of Afghanistan from the terrible fate they face, but we can at least try to help and support the cycling community.”
The initial plan was for Galpin’s list of riders to be combined with the UCI’s. But by mid-September, the Afghan Cycling Federation began repeated attacks on Galpin’s credibility on social media, claiming they were gathering information against her “in order to stop people who use afghan cyclists for their personal profits #fraudsters”. With this came an apparent shift in the UCI’s thinking.
“Why did Fazli’s narrative swing from ‘please help us’, to attacking me publicly, to trying to discredit me …?” Galpin mused, hypothetically, in an interview with CyclingTips. “I think it does come down to the loss of power and control.” She – a white Western woman – had supported cycling in Afghanistan, and she was now advising the UCI on who to prioritise getting out.
Fazli’s mindset, she suggests, is one of “I will accuse you of what I’m guilty of, and deflect … I’m guilty of getting my people onto flights and so that’s what I’ll accuse you of.”
For his part, Fazli believes that two unspecified parties – one of which is presumably Galpin – were maliciously undermining the evacuation. “We have concern[s about] their fundraising” related to Afghan cycling, Fazli told CyclingTips. He accused these detractors of going after the Federation “for their personal reason[s]” and “trying to make false claim[s against] us”.
Likely due to this fall-out, Galpin and the UCI’s lists were not combined as planned. Indeed, Galpin says her list was omitted entirely; only three riders were duplicated on the UCI’s list and thus evacuated. That was a far cry from an earlier promise from Fazli to Galpin – prior to his exile in Switzerland – that he “[would] not leave Afghanistan until all of the cycling girls are out.”
Along with Galpin’s rejected list went the hopes of the women and men of Bamiyan for a ticket out – all because, Galpin says, Fazli “doesn’t consider the two Bamiyan teams – both Hazara – as ‘real cyclists’ … he may say ‘we are only responsible for evacuating card-holding Federation riders’ … but the people that have been left behind, and are being harassed, had UCI licenses in the past.”
And it is the cyclists of Bamiyan – along with the original national team members – that are most identifiable and most at threat, Galpin says, due to media attention, a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for the women’s national team, and their role in documentaries prior to the Taliban’s return.
“If you say your job is getting the cyclists out, get the cyclists out.”-Shannon Galpin
Galpin raised her concerns about the campaign of harassment from the Afghan Cycling Federation with Lappartient, and pointed out that the riders she had prioritised for the evacuation were no longer on the convoy. “I need UCI to be aware of the abuse and bullying and slander coming out of Afghan Cycling Federation,” she wrote to Lappartient. “It is a distraction and I am exhausted by the abuse.”
She has received no response – either at the time, or since.
I am happy to welcome today the President of the @afghancycling Fazli Ahmad Fazli to discuss the current situation in Afghanistan and how we can continue our efforts to help our cyclists. @FFazle pic.twitter.com/vDMCCB9wKd— David Lappartient (@DLappartient) September 16, 2021
Those alternatively collaborative and then absent responses from the UCI have echoes elsewhere.
A Swiss humanitarian, working separately on the evacuation of a threatened artist in the same convoy, made contact with riders from the list, and learned of Hazara team members that had been omitted.
She confronted Fazli about the missing cyclists on two occasions, and, she says, he told her that they were family members, not legitimate team members. “He kept saying that these people are not ‘real cyclists,’” she told CyclingTips.
The Swiss humanitarian contacted Amina Lanaya – the director general of the UCI, the organisation’s second most senior figure after Lappartient – with her concerns. “She replied quickly that she will make sure that everybody gets protected,” CyclingTips was told. “But still these riders didn’t receive a confirmation. I made a small documentation about them and sent it to Ms Lanaya … to show that these people have to be in the evacuation group. But she did not respond anymore.”
Despite the two most senior people in the UCI having been repeatedly alerted to apparent discrepancies with the lists and the Afghan Federation’s conduct, the UCI soon after handed Fazli a UCI Merit award at the 2021 UCI Congress for his “courageous commitment to the development of cycling, notably women’s cycling, in a country where fighting for this cause is a risk”.
While there are obvious complexities to the situation, and multiple stakeholders to appease, it’s also fair to say that the convoy was a welcome PR win for the UCI. After having faced questions about its integrity and commitment to human rights, this was, perhaps, a concrete opportunity for the UCI to be seen doing something. And for those that were fortunate enough to get out, something was done – and that should be applauded. But that fact can coexist with less appetising realities.
Contacted by CyclingTips with specific questions about the allegations raised in this article, the UCI was blunt in its belief that any negative attention on the evacuation was nefarious in nature.
“Concerning any rumors, several journalists from different countries have informed us that one ill-intentioned person has been trying to denigrate all that has been achieved,” a UCI representative wrote, “and we are well aware of the reasons behind this.”
While it may be possible that there is an ill-intentioned person working against the Afghan Cycling Federation, it is perhaps worth stressing that that assessment doesn’t jive with CyclingTips’ reporting on this story, which drew on testimony from six separate sources, spread across four countries, all of them remarkably transparent and some of them showing bravery in the face of reprisals and threats. An email to the UCI explaining as much did not receive a response.
The driving fear of those still working to get the remaining cyclists out of Afghanistan is that – both within the UCI and in the public eye – the job is seen to be over.
That’s cold comfort for those still in the country, and those riding under the auspices of a Federation that is bungling at best, abusive and corrupt at worst. “Corruption and abuse in sport is not unique to Afghanistan … but when you throw in an evacuation, we’re talking about people’s lives,” Galpin says.
“I still have 50 cyclists that I am still working to get out … all Hazara, all directly targeted [by the Taliban], all in hiding, not just because they’re cyclists but because they are ethnic minorities.” This includes members of the original national women’s team, who were public faces of women’s rights in Afghanistan and the ones nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. None of those riders were on the Afghan Cycling Federation’s evacuation list.
In response to the escalating attacks from the Federation, Galpin stressed that she has been advocating not just for Federation cyclists, but also “those cyclists that would not have a Federation or non-profit organisation working to evacuate them.” From her perspective, if she hadn’t stepped in to raise money for evacuation costs – and safe houses, food stipends, bribes, and more – those athletes would be isolated and in grave danger.
The costs are enormous – as much as US$15,000 to get a family across the border to Pakistan, Galpin claims – and “it is individuals that are doing the work of governments right now.”
The UCI, meanwhile, maintains that it’s in it for the long haul. “The evacuation is still ongoing and we hope to be able to ensure the safety of all cyclists, in particular female cyclists,” a spokesperson told CyclingTips. “The limiter is finding countries to host the evacuees in the long-term. It is not just a question of getting them out of Afghanistan, but also finding them continuing support in a country where they don’t speak the same language or understand the culture.”
Lives are at risk – and through the efforts of the UCI and its partners, lives have been saved. That should be applauded, and human instinct suggests that it’s almost secondary whether the ‘right’ people got out. The UCI, for its part, has worked hard to do something it saw as important, and seems almost wounded by negative attention on the evacuation. It’s easy to empathise with that, too.
A layer deeper lies the ethical quandary at the core of all this – even if the Afghan Cycling Federation did manipulate the lists, as seems possible, do the beneficiaries deserve the fate of being exposed, and potentially sent back to possible persecution in Afghanistan?
Is their life or happiness worth less than a cyclist? Is it justifiable to snatch hope away from those that have been able to get out of a bad situation, even if under false pretences? And if you were in a position to help those close to you and the world was collapsing around you – wouldn’t you do the exact same thing?
Lists are black and white; lives are not.
Galpin is conscious of being seen as unduly critical – as she says, there are lives at stake – and she doesn’t begrudge Fazli’s family getting out. Likewise, she says, “The UCI has the right to evacuate whoever comes under their purview – which is going to be the Federation list. That’s totally understandable. The Federation can submit whatever list they want and say that these are our cyclists, according to them. In an ideal world you trust that, and that’s great.”
The part that rankles is the perception that urgency seems to have gone out of the effort, and a blind eye is being turned to those that have slipped into the cracks. “David [Lappartient] already knew that there was a large group of cyclists that were not on that list, that were Hazara and were from Bamiyan,” Galpin said, “and we’d agreed that that list needed to be combined.
“Having been part of multiple evacuations – there’s overlaps and overlaps. I know how many are split up. You’re just trying to chisel away at this impossible problem. I don’t blame the UCI for not getting all the cyclists out, and I don’t have a right to say who the UCI evacuates.”
But if there are riders left behind, question marks over the legitimacy of those that did get out, the Federation is lashing out, and emails stop being returned? At that point, Galpin argues, it stops being a humanitarian move and starts being a PR one.
“We shouldn’t be crowing about getting the job done,” Galpin tells me, animatedly. “If you say your job is getting cyclists out, then get the cyclists out.”
That’s a view that’s echoed by an Afghan cyclist who made it to the US and has begun rebuilding a life there. That brings with it relief, tempered by fear for family members that are still stuck in the in-between.
“The most deserving people are still in Afghanistan,” the cyclist tells me, before making a plea to those that still have the power to improve – or save – people’s lives.
“Please: don’t play it easy. This was never meant to be easy. Don’t pat yourself on the back. Do the right thing.”
Note: The fundraising efforts of MTB Afghanistan that CyclingTips promoted were not connected to the evacuation mentioned in this report.