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By Miriam Arghandiwal
KABUL (Reuters) - Just 16 years ago, Abdul Rahman Hotak helped prop one of the world's most austere regimes for women as a newspaper editor and bureaucrat for the Taliban. Now, as a one of Afghanistan's top human rights protectors, he says he has turned a corner.
Sitting in a small grassed yard outside his new office at the Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, Hotak insists on being a voice in favor of hard-won women's rights in the deeply conservative country, still ranked as one of the world's most dangerous places to be born a girl.
"Unfortunately there are many people who are against women in this country, many of whom I've worked with in the past," the heavily bearded Hotak told Reuters in a rare interview, passionately gesturing under a dark striped turban.
"As a commissioner, I will continue to work with women rights activists to lessen the burden and plight of Afghan women."
President Hamid Karzai's naming of Hotak among five new rights commissioners has raised questions about his commitment to protecting women as most international combat troops leave the country and his government looks to fragile negotiations with the Taliban.
Hotak's controversial past, including rumors of having been an aide to the Taliban's one-eyed leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, has raised alarm from civil rights activists including the New York-based Human Rights Watch and U.N. rights commissions.
Even before the Taliban emerged a formidable post-civil war force in 1994, Hotak was the editor-in-chief of the Taliban's 'Afghan Sunrise' newspaper in southern Kandahar province, where the Islamist movement was founded.
Hotak denies serving directly under Omar, and says he joined the radical movement in its early days to "serve his country" and help it recover from decades of bloody civil war that had left much of Kabul in ruins.
But he says he never agreed with much of the oppressive ideology during Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001 which barred women from almost all work and education, as well as voting, decreeing them un-Islamic and imposing harsh punishment for infringements.
"Everyone in Afghanistan had links with one group or another and I am not exceptional," Hotak said.
Even Sima Samar, the chair of the independent human rights commission and a perpetual Nobel Peace Prize nominee, has questioned Hotak's appointment, warning it could breach commitments to international backers as a condition of aid made at last year's Tokyo donor summit.
Samar, who won renown as a fierce opponent of the head-to-toe covering burqa for women, said the appointment risked damaging the credibility of the nine-member commission, appointed by Karzai but which acts independently.
UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay also warned that the latest appointments compromised the commission's political independence and effectiveness.
Many Afghan women feel they may bear the brunt of efforts to bring insurgents into a political settlement to end the 12-year NATO-led war, with a step back to some of the conditions they faced before the U.S.-backed overthrow of Taliban rule in 2001.
In the 12 years since, women have regained basic rights and made steps towards more effective political representation with a quarter of seats in the parliament reserved for females. The government has also tried to recruit more women into the police and military.
Hotak, in a possible gesture of moderation, agreed to shake hands with a female reporter, which is unusual for past or present members of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But he also voiced skepticism about new Elimination of Violence against Women legislation in preparation since 2005 which has sparked a furore in parliament. If passed, the bills would outlaw forced or underage marriage, as well as rape and violence against women, including within families.
"Our third amendment says no law can violate Islam, but now we have this law violating Islam," Hotak said. "A law needs to be made so Muslims and civil society can accept it, so people feel comfortable with the law."
Religious-leaning lawmakers have previously objected to at least eight of the 22 articles in the legislation, including keeping the legal age for women to marry at 16, the existence of shelters for domestic abuse victims and the halving of the number of wives permitted to two.
(Writing by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Rob Taylor)