Afghanistan: Continued raids on and detention of activists, journalists, and crackdown on peaceful protests
Civic space in Afghanistan is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Two years on since the Taliban takeover, there have been widespread reports of restrictions on civil society. Activists have been arbitrarily arrested and detained for their criticism of the Taliban. Others have faced harassment, intimidation and violence and some have also been killed. There have also been abductions of women human rights defenders by the Taliban with impunity. The Taliban have also raided media offices and detained journalists. Some have been tortured and ill-treated.
Despite ongoing extensive high-level advocacy by international stakeholders, respected education activist Matiullah Wesa remains in detention more than half a year after he was detained on 27th March 2023.
Officials representing the de facto authorities in September 2023 made comments suggesting that the Taliban was working on drafting a constitution, deliberating laws and setting up regional shura councils. The group’s actions since their seizure of power in August 2021 suggest any movement on the first two areas will be slow because of the need to reach consensus and avoid intra-group fractures. It is also highly unlikely that any future constitution or legal framework would provide protections for civil society given the de facto authorities’ rejection of inclusive governance.
In the meantime, the de facto authorities continue to rule by decree with no formal system of governance or legal framework, leading to an environment where human rights abuses are rife. Members of civil society who are detained are often held incommunicado, with family members having no access to information about where their relatives are being held or on what charges. The majority of civil society activists detained are taken by the General Intelligence Directorate (GDI), with police officials most often unaware of the detentions and unable to offer any information about prisoners’ whereabouts. Former detainees report the widespread use of torture and ill-treatment along with a total lack of due process.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan presented his oral update on 11th August 2023 and said, among other things, that he was “troubled about the collapse of civic space with civil society activists, journalists and peaceful protestors subjected to restrictions, censorship, arbitrary arrest and detention.” On 16th September 2023, UN rights chief Volker Türk told the Human Rights Council that “human rights in Afghanistan are in a state of collapse” before sounding the alarm over ongoing reports of extrajudicial killings, torture, ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests and detentions, as well as serious violations against former Government officials, in a new report.
A report published on 20th September 2023 by UNAMA’s human rights service provided detailed case information illustrating these conditions. The report documented more than 1,600 specific violations (of which 11 percent involved women) relating to arrests and detentions across 29 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces between 1st January 2022 and 31st July 2023. Cases recorded in the report include 466 credible instances of torture and other forms of ill-treatment in custody; 170 cases were attributed to the de facto police, 291 to the de facto GDI and 5 to the prison authorities. The report documented 259 instances (95 by police, 162 by GDI, 2 by prison authorities) of causing physical suffering such as beatings, asphyxiation, suspension from the ceiling and electric shocks. The report documented 207 instances of causing mental suffering through coercive questioning, including threats to kill interviewees or family members, and the deaths of 18 individuals in custody.
The report further notes: “that the extent of torture and other forms of ill-treatment of individuals in custody is widely under-reported, such that the figures presented in this report represent only a snapshot of the full scale of violations of the rights of individuals in detention across Afghanistan. The pervasive climate of surveillance, harassment and intimidation of all sectors of society, the threats to individuals not to speak of their experiences while in detention and being forced to provide guarantees by family members and other third parties for their release from custody, hampers the willingness of many individuals to raise complaints or to liaise freely with UNAMA without fear of repercussions for themselves or their family.”
In October 2023, the European Parliament issued a resolution deploring “the level of human rights abuses in Afghanistan, which have risen exponentially since the Taliban takeover; denounces in the strongest terms all human rights violations in the country, including the widespread persecution of former government officials and ANDSF members, the staggering oppression of women and girls and policy of gender apartheid, and the targeting of civil society organisations and human rights defenders.”
In recent months, there have been raids on and detention of women activists and increasing fear of a climate of surveillance. There was a raid and arrests ahead of a public protest, a gathering around independence day suppressed and killings and excessive force during a Shia festival gathering. Journalists continued to be arrested and self-censor.
The de facto authorities have denied Afghans their fundamental rights to freedom of association and civil society groups have been banned. Although there is no clear legal framework, conducting civil society activities is effectively illegal and anyone engaging in such activity is at risk of arrest or worse. Nevertheless, women human rights activists continue to organise themselves informally in an attempt to coordinate their protest and advocacy activities. They do so at extreme personal risk, because the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI, the intelligence service of the de facto authorities) frequently detains protest organisers and their relatives in raids on their homes.
Raids on and detention of women activists
Afghanistan's Women Protester Movements Coalition: Free Zholia Parsi, Murtaza Behboudi, Neda Parwani, Rasoul Parsi, and all other civic activists! The imprisonment of activists by the Taliban silences the voices of the people. pic.twitter.com/NEXR4Tm1so— ائتلاف جنبش های اعتراضی زنان افغانستان (@WomanProtesters) October 17, 2023
Two women protesters were detained in raids on their homes within the space of eight days in September. Both were detained along with family members, a tactic the de facto authorities use to increase pressure on women and threaten them into giving up information or signing documents stating they will end their civic activities.
Woman human rights defender (WHRD) Neda Parwani was detained on 19th September 2023 during a raid on her home in the Khair Khana district of Kabul. Her husband and 4-year-old son were arrested alongside her. All three are believed to remain in detention as of early October. A few days later on 27th September, WHRD Zholia Parsi was detained in the Kolola Pushta district of Kabul. Her house was reportedly searched during the raid and Taliban troops reportedly removed mobile phones, laptops and documents. Parsi’s son was detained on the same day.
According to SRMO, another woman protester was reportedly detained in Kabul on 12th August 2023. During her three-day detention she was reportedly tortured and sexually abused. Officials reportedly threatened to post immodest photos of her on the internet if she didn’t end her protests against the de facto authorities.
The latest arrests of WHRDs prompted a series of statements condemning the moves, including from UNAMA, who said “ongoing arrests and detentions of individuals simply for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and opinion is deeply troubling and contrary to Afghanistan’s international human rights obligations.” UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan Richard Bennett expressed his serious alarm at the “arbitrary detention of women human rights defenders Zholia Parsi & Neda Parwani, and their family members. I call urgently on the Taliban for their immediate and unconditional release, as well as to secure their safety and wellbeing.”
The two women were also named in a European Parliament resolution that was passed on 5th October 2023 condemning the human rights situation in Afghanistan and specifically labelling the de facto authorities’ policies towards women and girls as ‘gender apartheid’.
Fears of a climate of surveillance
The climate of surveillance referred to in the UNAMA report (see above) was highlighted by comments by Taliban spokesmen in September 2023 regarding their plans to expand the use of security cameras around urban areas across Afghanistan. Reports suggest the de facto authorities are in discussion with China to increase their capacity in this area. The de facto authorities claim the planned network of surveillance cameras would be used to maintain security and prevent attacks from groups such as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). However civil society actors are concerned the surveillance system would be used as another means of monitoring and controlling civil society and the broader population.
Public rallies have been relatively rare in recent months because the Taliban’s brutal response to protests has had a chilling effect. Women holding demonstrations since the Taliban takeover have been hit with whips, beaten with rifle butts and targeted with water cannon. Those detained during protests have been subjected to torture, sexual abuse and extended periods of incommunicado detention.
Remarkably, even in the face of such severe threats to their safety, some groups continue to try to organise events to keep their struggle on both the de facto authorities’ and the international agenda. As Human Rights Watch’s Heather Barr was quoted as saying in a media report in August 2023: "The images of women protesting on the streets have been the single most important factor in compelling the international community not to look away".
Other groups have adjusted their activities to reduce the risk of being caught and punished by the de facto authorities. Many women’s groups hold gatherings in private homes where they hold up banners and take photos and videos of the indoor rallies to share on social media and via their own contact networks both at home and abroad.
The majority of protests are held by women, but some men have also challenged the de facto authorities over their gender policies. For example, male university students in Mazar-e Sharif in early September 2023 reportedly used graffiti to share slogans calling for the resumption of girls’ university education.
Protest demanding right to education in Mazar-e Sharif
Photos have emerged of a small gathering of women wearing burqas in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif on 12th August 2023. They were holding placards demanding their right to education in the lead up to the second anniversary of Taliban rule.
Raid and arrests ahead of public protest
One group of women were planning to hold a public protest on 19th August 2023 when Taliban troops raided the private residence where they were gathering. The de facto authorities reportedly arrested eight people at the residence in the Khair Khana district of Kabul. The women were held for several hours before being released. In video footage of the incident that was shared with local media outlets, one Taliban soldier can be heard saying “hit her, hit her”, while one of the women protesters calls on them to stop. A woman activist who spoke to some of those involved after their release said the detainees told her they had been hit and kicked by Taliban soldiers during their arrest.
Gathering around independence day suppressed
The de facto authorities suppressed gatherings to mark independence day, a commemorative event that has in recent decades been celebrated on 19th August 2023. The Taliban also objected to people owning or showing the flag of the former government which was a focal point of celebrations prior to the Taliban takeover and is often seen at independence day celebrations in the diaspora. According to SRMO that documents human rights violations, a young man was reportedly killed on 20th August at a Taliban checkpoint for waving the flag.
Killings and excessive force during Shia festival gathering
Taliban fired shots to disperse Shia Muslims who had gathered for Ashura day procession in Ghazni province.— Meetra Qutb (@MeetraQ) July 28, 2023
A clear crackdown on religious freedom!
Taliban troops reportedly shot dead four people in Ghazni province on 28th July 2023 when they opened fire with live ammunition on a crowd of people celebrating the Ashura festival, which is an event held by the Shia branch of Islam. The shootings took place after the de facto authorities had banned Ashura gatherings; they claimed this was to prevent attacks targeting the event but the ban took place in a context of increasing restrictions on the Shia community.
At least 10 people were detained in Ghazni on the day of the shootings, while other people were reportedly beaten by Taliban troops because they had been carrying Ashura flags. Shia communities were challenged by Taliban soldiers when they tried to hold Ashura events in Kabul, while telecommunications networks were reportedly blocked in parts of Kabul, Balkh and Ghazni provinces in an effort to prevent people being able to arrange gatherings.
Arrest of journalists
The #Afghanistan #Journalists Center reported that the #Taliban have released Faqir Mohammad Faqirzai and Jan Agha Saleh, #journalists of #RadioKilid, who were arrested three weeks ago from #Jalalabad city, the center of #Nangarhar province. pic.twitter.com/Lz7IbeX6Uf— Reporterly (@Reporterlyaf) August 31, 2023
Taliban restrictions on freedom of expression were starkly highlighted in September when nine journalists and media workers were detained between 6th and 13th August 2023.
The nine journalists arrested in this chilling crackdown were Faqir Mohammad Faqirzai, Jan Agha Saleh, Haseeb Hassas, Habib Sarab, Sayed Wahdatullah Abdali, Shamsullah Omari, Wahidrahman Afghanmal, Ataullah Omar and Parwiz Sargand. They were arrested in raids in five of Afghanistan’s provinces without any reason being given.
International media rights advocacy group Reporters without Borders (RSF) expressed their alarm at the pace of repression, stating “fear and uncertainty now reign in Afghanistan. Two years after a new regime was established, these arrests have again given the lie to the assurances that certain Taliban officials gave about respecting press freedom. The record on violations of the right to information is appalling, and the regime is fully responsible.”
UNAMA issued a statement, reminding the de facto authorities of their obligations under international law to respect, uphold and promote rights to freedom of opinion and expression. The nine journalists detained have since been released.
On 19th August 2023, Taliban authorities detained Iranian photojournalist Mohammad Hossein Velayati at Kabul International Airport before he boarded a flight to Iran. Velayati had travelled to Afghanistan for a 10-day personal visit.
🇦🇫 #Afghanistan: @AFJC_Media strongly condemns the continued arrest of Sultan Ali Jawadi and the prohibition on the radio's activities, citing a violation of the country's media law https://t.co/GlvI0bvRDc pic.twitter.com/SnVbfnG1P7— IFEX (@IFEX) October 22, 2023
On 7th October 2023, three Taliban intelligence operatives took the independent Radio Nasim’s director, Sultan Ali Jawadi and two of its journalists, Sultan Ali Jawadi and Saifullah Rezaei, from Jawadi’s home in the city of Nili in central Daikundi Province and detained them in an unknown location. It was the second time in 10 days that the Taliban had detained the three journalists. On 27th September, the intelligence operatives raided and sealed Radio Nasim’s office, stopped it broadcasting and took the three of them to the provincial intelligence headquarters. The Taliban freed the Radio Nasim journalists after five hours but retained their mobile phones.
In a report published in August 2023 documenting violations of media freedom in the first two years since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, the Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC) reported a total of 366 abuses. The incidents recorded in the report include the deaths of three media personnel in Kabul and northern Balkh province, 23 injuries and 176 cases of temporary and mid-term detentions that often involve physical violence and torture.
Increasing media self-censorship
It is important to note that detentions of journalists are taking place in an environment where journalists are already self-censoring to a great extent. The Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC) on 28th September 2023 issued a statement to mark the International Day of Access to Information in which it lamented the 13 different sets of regulations that media workers must comply with to avoid falling foul of the de facto authorities.
According to the AFJC, “the implementation of these extensive and often ambiguous guidelines has had profound implications for both the quantity and quality of media work and content production. The severe restrictions on access to information and the increase in self-censorship have been significant consequences of these directives.” The statement went on to explain how rarely Taliban officials give interviews to the media and, even then, often refuse to answer detailed questions.
On the same day the statement was published, the deputy Minister of Information and Culture Muhajer Farahi said in a tweet that “spokespersons of all departments are obliged to give timely information to the media within the limits of their working framework. If the media has a problem in this area, they can refer to the Ministry of Information and Culture. The media should also understand their moral responsibility in this area. They should also reflect two years of positive trends.”
French-Afghan journalist released
⚡️️FINALLY FREE! The Taliban court has just ordered the release of journalist Mortaza Behboudi, after 284 days in detention in Kabul! RSF is relieved and thanks the thousands of people who mobilised for his release.— RSF (@RSF_inter) October 18, 2023
French-Afghan journalist Mortaza Behboudi was released from prison on 18th October after 284 days in Taliban custody. As previously documented, he was detained in January 2023, two days after entering Afghanistan while waiting for press accreditation. After being held in Kabul for 11 days he was transferred to another prison in Kabul and was accused of spying.