UCI silent as Afghan cyclists allege death threats, abduction, and torture
Serious abuses have allegedly been perpetrated by the Afghan Cycling Federation and its president.
Serious abuses have allegedly been perpetrated by the Afghan Cycling Federation and its president.
In the months since the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, the situation continues to deteriorate. That statement also applies to the evacuation efforts of cyclists from the country, which reached a public pinnacle with a widely publicised, UCI-supported effort in October and have become increasingly mired in controversy since.
Those evacuation convoys, which rescued 165 vulnerable Afghans, were a brave humanitarian initiative and a major PR coup for the UCI – until a less-appetising tale came to light.
In a major CyclingTips investigative feature published in early November, we revealed the bullying and blackmail allegations lurking on the edge of the frame. Multiple sources alleged that the list of evacuees was manipulated by the Afghan Cycling Federation in favour of friends and family. There were harrowing tales of threats and coercion, with vulnerable riders – both male and female – left behind to whatever future the Taliban would allow them.
The exact number of Afghan cyclists evacuated is still unclear, but according to some as few as five out of the 165 evacuees on the evacuation lists were actually cyclists. But it’s not just the numbers that have proven contentious.
It became increasingly apparent that the Afghan Cycling Federation – under the presidency of Fazli Ahmad Fazli, who was feted with a UCI Merit Award at the 2021 UCI Congress – had used its power to silence those whose fates rest in its hands. Simultaneously, the UCI appeared to have turned a blind eye to these abuses, paralysed by trying to do the right thing.
By the time of our original report, things had gotten pretty dark, pretty quickly. But they were about to get worse.
In the immediate aftermath of our story breaking on November 11, the Afghan Cycling Federation Twitter account identified an Afghan rider whom it believed was an anonymised CyclingTips source, “Amin”.
Amin had alleged certain incriminating details about Fazli, including the additions of Fazli’s brother, brother-in-law, business associates, and friends to the evacuation under the pretence that they were Federation officials or riders. For speaking out, Amin says, he was himself removed from the evacuation list.
Stranded in exile, Amin says that on November 12 he received a series of threatening anonymous phone calls: if he didn’t stop speaking out against Fazli, they knew where he was, and they would come for him. [CyclingTips has viewed a call log confirming five successive calls from a Pakistani number.]
Two weeks later, on the evening of November 26 – after continued harassment from Fazli and his supporters on social media, and more threatening phone calls – Amin says he was kidnapped. Through a translator, he explained how a group of four assailants came to his house in Pakistan, where he had fled across the border following the Taliban’s return. Amin’s captors – whom he believes were Pakistani, with two speaking Urdu and two Pashto – covered his eyes and bound his hands, took his phone, and moved him to an unknown location.
Amin claims he was kept in a dark room without food or water for four days. While there, he was slapped and repeatedly doused in cold water to prevent him sleeping. Night-time temperatures at the time, in that region of Pakistan, were in the single digits Celsius (~40 ºF).
His captors did not directly mention Fazli or the Afghan Cycling Federation, but Amin says that at one point they unlocked his phone with his fingerprint, played back and deleted messages from Fazli, and then destroyed his phone.
After four days in captivity, around November 29, Amin alleges he was placed in a car – semi-lucid – driven for a while, and then was finally released unconscious and unwell in the unfamiliar village of Charsadda, Peshawar, where he was assisted by an old man.
He is now in hiding, and fearful of further recriminations.
[Fazli did not respond to specific questions about Amin’s allegations.]
Given language, geographical, and technological barriers, certain specifics are fated to remain hazy, despite CyclingTips’s best efforts to verify as many of these details as possible. What is much clearer is the fact that Amin was not the only one facing the wrath of Fazli.
In an extraordinary string of more than a dozen voice messages sent to a WhatsApp group of Federation cyclists – forwarded to CyclingTips, and translated – a voice identified as Fazli raged against those who had spoken against him. “I already know seven people [ed. that had spoken against him] who are involved in this channel,” he said. “By catching one we can find the rest easily.”
“One thing I will do for sure is make all of you pay for what you have done, because I cannot understand why you keep dishonoring me,” he said in another message. “I have very detailed information about you all, especially the three motherfuckers who are closely involved in these works [as whistleblowers] … It will only take a month for me to go to them and talk to them in person. Then you will see what all these things you are doing mean.”
Those who “slandered” Fazli were “traitors”, and he had “emailed the UCI directly to have their licenses revoked.”
In other voice messages sent to the WhatsApp group, Fazli coached his supporters on how to use Twitter to respond to negative comments about the Federation and himself. He also spoke about how the CyclingTips article was “95% lies” written by a cuckold, and said that “whenever you see these people you should spit in their faces and treat them worse than you would treat Satan.”
Since CyclingTips first revealed the corruption surrounding the evacuation, independently researched stories from both Cyclingnews and the Swiss current affairs TV show, Rundschau, have arrived at similar conclusions. Meanwhile, reporters – including myself – have been doxxed on social media by the Afghan Cycling Federation.
Through January, the situation continued to deteriorate. Athletes that went to the Afghan National Olympic Committee in an attempt to be evacuated say they believe they were being watched by supporters of Fazli. One says that he received threatening phone calls after he went inside, and was chased as he left the building.
Meanwhile, a group of athletes from the long-persecuted Hazara minority in Bamyan province – who felt that they had been overlooked in the evacuation convoys – continued to push for international recognition of their plight.
A social media campaign by the Oqab Sports Club, tagging in the UCI and David Lappartient, prompted Fazli to contact some of those behind the campaign. In some messages, he appeared to belittle the Bamyan cyclists: “you idiots of the Hazara do not understand humanity. You Muzdoor [unskilled labourer] people are so far from being a cyclist.” In others, he became threatening: “You disgraced me among the people. You think I will sit and watch? Have you ever thought of the future of this?”
And finally, the threats became explicit. In one phone call, Fazli allegedly told a cyclist that “if you see my works as betrayal, I will kill and destroy your family and yourself.”
In a direct message viewed by CyclingTips, similar threats were made, with a worrying twist: “The people of the Emirate [ed. Taliban] are my own,” Fazli wrote. “Until they have sent me photos of your dead bodies, I will not rest.”
[Fazli did not respond to questions about whether he had personally threatened any athletes, or whether he had any personal connection to the Taliban.]
In the lead up to CyclingTips’s initial story in November, the UCI provided a statement that showed support for Fazli, and blamed the negative attention on the UCI evacuation on an unspecified “ill-intentioned person [that] has been trying to denigrate all that has been achieved”.
[A response sent to the UCI clarified that our story drew on testimony from six separate sources, spread across four countries. We did not receive a response.]
The UCI issued identical statements to other media outlets investigating the story, including Swiss TV’s Rundschau program – which aired more than six weeks later.
The troubling reality behind this is that, over a period of several weeks and despite repeated enquiries from multiple media outlets, the UCI appears not to have investigated any of the allegations against Fazli with any vigor, nor acted on multiple social media posts and emails attempting to direct the organisation’s attention to the ongoing abuses.
That inaction has consequences.
On November 11, CyclingTips contacted the UCI’s media team – along with key members of the organisation including Vincent Jacquet, the UCI’s head of international relations – to warn them of worsening abuse, and offering to provide recordings of Fazli directly threatening CyclingTips sources. We received no response.
On November 22, Fazli and Vincent Jacquet were pictured together, laughing, with Jacquet being awarded a commemorative Tour de Afghanistan medal, along with Swiss politician Philippe Leuba – who helped secure permanent asylum in Switzerland for Afghan evacuees, including Fazli.
On November 26, Amin was captured and tortured – he believes under Fazli’s orders.
There’s a clear-cut, unambiguous paper trail of attempts to warn the UCI that something like this might happen, along with near daily social media posts over many months from cyclists in Afghanistan and advocates including Shannon Galpin.
Multiple requests for further comment from the UCI also went unanswered.
A separate approach to the UCI Ethics Commission went unanswered for a month, before a brief response stating that “the Ethics Commission did not receive any complaint substantiated by facts which could constitute a breach of the UCI Code of Ethics regarding the Afghan Cycling Federation or its president.”
The UCI Ethics Commission sits independently of the organisation it adjudicates on, and is tasked with enforcing the UCI Code of Ethics. This document – which the Afghan Cycling Federation is bound by – outlines rules of integrity:
[The UCI did not respond to a request for comment for this story, or to specific questions about whether an investigation was underway into Fazli and the Afghan Cycling Federation.]
It is clear that Afghanistan is not a country in good health, with widespread poverty and famine afflicting a majority of the country’s citizens. Violence is widespread. Gender discrimination is entrenched. It has been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Things are bad, in a way that privileged westerners – including myself – are unable to contextualise.
The cyclists of Afghanistan want to get out, and any of those that were evacuated by the UCI – including Fazli, and his family and friends – deserve as good a life as they can get. Evacuation was an opportunity for a brighter future, and any rational person would have seized it.
What is less forgivable is the repeated pattern of bullying and harassment that is being perpetrated by Fazli Ahmad Fazli – and that’s before we even get to the torture allegations, death threats, threatened violence, and apparent allegiance with the Taliban. Less egregious – but no less damaging – is the Afghan Cycling Federation’s continued attempts to discredit independent evacuation fundraising efforts, characterising them as fraud and theft.
[Neither of the two main fundraisers – run by Farid Noori for MTB Afghanistan, and Shannon Galpin, who has helped evacuate more than 70 people – trust the Federation or Fazli with the money raised, but both have been vocal about wanting to work with the UCI. Noori has offered to donate more than US$150,000 to UCI resettlement efforts, without response.]
As for the UCI, what began as a noble humanitarian exercise now risks inflicting significant reputational harm. At the 2021 UCI Congress, Fazli was awarded a UCI Merit Award in a 10-minute-long centrepiece moment of the event, complete with an adoring video package lauding Fazli’s commitment to women’s cycling, and bravery in the face of the Taliban. To denounce Fazli’s actions would require some public backtracking, and an acknowledgment that mistakes have been made.
The cyclists of Afghanistan remain in limbo, in a country that continues to tear itself to pieces. Their lives are directly threatened by the person who is supposed to be their biggest advocate, while the UCI appears entirely unwilling to even investigate these threats. There are multiple failings – from decades-old geopolitics all the way down to sport administration – that have led to this point.
And here we are, left with an unanswerable question to an impossible problem: where do we go from here?