Afghanistan: Taliban continues its persecution of women’s rights activists, journalists and artists
Civic space in Afghanistan remans rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. 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 been killed. The Taliban have also raided media offices and detained journalists. Some have been tortured and ill-treated.
On International Human Rights Day, 10th December 2023, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reiterated its call for Afghanistan’s de facto authorities to embrace and uphold its human rights obligations. In addition to the severe restrictions imposed on women and girls, UNAMA continued to document instances of extrajudicial killing, torture and ill-treatment, corporal punishment, arbitrary arrest and detention and other violations of detainees’ rights. Compounding this, those who speak out in defence of human rights – in particular those of women and girls – face arbitrary arrest and detention, threats and censorship.
On 29th December 2023, the Security Council adopted a resolution requesting the UN Secretary-General to appoint a Special Envoy for Afghanistan, provided with robust expertise on human rights and gender, as it also stressed the critical importance of a continued presence of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Adopting resolution 2721 (2023) the 15-nation Council by a vote of 13 in favour to none against, with two abstentions (China, Russian Federation), reiterated its full support to UNAMA and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General. It also took positive note of the independent assessment on Afghanistan and encouraged Member States and other relevant stakeholders to consider the implementation of its recommendations, especially in regard to increasing international engagement in a more coordinated manner.
Afghan civil society have continued to urge states to prioritise women in negotiations between the West and the Taliban, pressing for accountability. They also called for trust-building mechanisms for Afghan reconciliation, advocating for diaspora-led initiatives.
On 2nd February 2024, UN experts expressed deep concern at numerous reports that scores of women and girls in Afghanistan have been arbitrarily detained and subjected to ill-treatment since early January 2024 for allegedly violating the Taliban’s dress code for women.
In recent months, women’s rights activists have continued to be detained and ill-treated. Education activists have also been targeted. Activists have also faced online abuse. Few protests were documented due to the climate of fear, with some held indoors. Media workers, academics and cultural activists have been detained and criminalised.
Women activists detained
At huge risk to their personal safety, women’s rights groups continue to challenge the Taliban’s assault on Afghans’ rights. Those who have tried to exercise their fundamental freedoms by continuing the work of existing organisations or trying to establish new networks have been targeted by the Taliban’s notorious intelligence services with harassment, threats, detention and torture. At least seven women’s rights activists were detained by the de facto authorities during the last quarter of 2023.
Alarming reports that the Taliban members have detained another protestor and activist, Parisa Azada. She needs to be released immediately. The Taliban must end arbitrary detentions and hold their forces accountable for these violations. pic.twitter.com/pBebJBLdDo— Fereshta Abbasi (@FereshtaAbbasi) November 16, 2023
Parisa Azada, a member of the Afghan Women’s Movement for Justice and Freedom, was detained on 14th November 2023 while she was visiting a shop that produces signs and banners. For the past two years, Azada had been vocal in her pursuit of justice against the Taliban’s restrictions on women. She was held in the Taliban District 40 detention centre and released after 40 days on 25th December 2023.
Nabila Rahimi was arbitrarily arrested at her home by the Taliban last week. She was a female protester in Takhar province of Afghanistan. There has been no information on her fate. She is of Tajik ethnicity.— Shabnam Nasimi (@NasimiShabnam) December 7, 2023
We DEMAND her immediate and unconditional release.#FreeNabilaRahimi pic.twitter.com/rHgO0xAZNO
Nabila Rahimi, a health educator and rights activist from northern Takhar province, was detained from her office on 22nd November 2023 and beaten by Taliban soldiers during her arrest. She worked as a trainer with a health contractor used by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Her whereabouts and fate remain unknown.
Respected activist Zholia Parsi, a teacher and founder of a women’s library, was released on 18th December 2023 with her son. As previously documented, she was detained in September 2023 during a raid on her house in the Kolola Pushta district of Kabul. Parsi’s son was detained on the same day. During her detention her relatives expressed concern over her deteriorating health, and local reports suggested that she was transferred to a hospital at some point during this period.
Another activist, Neda Parwani, was released on 15th December 2023 along with her husband and son. Parwani was reportedly taken to hospital immediately after her release because of fears over her physical and mental health after three months in detention. She was reportedly released on bail and it is unclear if further action will be taken against her. As previously documented, Neda Parwani was detained on 19th September 2023 during a raid on her home in the Khair Khana district of Kabul.
A third member of the same group, Munizha Siddiqi, was forcibly disappeared on 24th September; relatives only discovered her whereabouts several weeks later. She was reportedly transferred to Pul-e Charki prison on 5th December where she is believed to remain at the time of writing.
In addition to these women whose names have been publicised, an unknown number of other women are also in detention but their names have not been shared publicly because of fears this could put them or their families in additional danger.
A media article published on 24th October 2023 quoted the representative of a women’s rights group stating that eight women from her network remained in detention but were not being named because their families feared that doing so would cause more problems. The activist noted that some of the families had had no contact whatsoever with the girls since their arrest.
Torture and ill-treatment of activist
In a tragic incident on 4th November 2023, a woman protester either committed suicide or was killed after being detained for three days by Taliban soldiers. The woman was arrested at a checkpoint in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif on 30th October 2023 and reportedly subjected to violence and sexual assault that was filmed. The de facto authorities reportedly threatened her that the film would be made public if she continued her activism. Local media reports said there were signs of torture on her body when she was released. Some local reports suggested she was the victim of an ‘honour’ killing rather than having committed suicide.
Education activists arbitrarily detained
URGENT ACTION🚨: The Taliban @GDI1415 have arbitrarily arrested & detained education activists Ahmad Fahim Azimi & Sediqullah Afghan who campaigned for girls’ education. They must be immediately & unconditionally released. #Endcrackdownondissenthttps://t.co/SKgmkCzWBX pic.twitter.com/sdqR7CzziM— Amnesty International South Asia, Regional Office (@amnestysasia) February 2, 2024
Education activist Fahim Azimi, the manager of the national robotic team, was arrested on 17th October 2023 with his colleague Sediqullah Afghan. Their office in the Kart-e Char district of the capital Kabul was reportedly raided by soldiers from the de facto intelligence agency who took away computers, phones and documents. Relatives did not initially publicise the arrests because they hoped the men would be quickly released but they remain in detention as of early February 2024.
According to Amnesty International, both activists were kept by the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) District 40 for 72 days for interrogation. They were falsely accused of assisting girls from the national robotic team to leave the country, inciting women protestors, and organising protests. Both the activists and their families have refuted these allegations.
On 27th December 2023, the two activists appeared in a Taliban court in Kabul. The Taliban judge deemed the interrogation findings inconclusive and ordered their transfer to Pul-e-Charkhi prison. Deprived of a fair trial, Ahmad Fahim Azimi and Seddiqullah Afghan challenged the judgment. In retaliation, the authorities subjected the two activists to torture and other ill-treatment, including sleep deprivation and solitary confinement, as the Taliban de-facto authorities wanted them to confess they were working against them.
Online abuse of activists
Social media has provided a crucial platform for Afghan women since the Taliban takeover, but a new investigation by #AfghanWitness reveals how those who dare to speak out are facing a torrent of abuse online. The impacts are devastating for women’s political participation – both… pic.twitter.com/dgvyNj6RAM— Afghan Witness (@afghan_witness) December 14, 2023
A report published in November 2023 by monitoring organisation Afghan Witness documented details of the online abuse experienced by women’s rights activists. Afghan Witness analysed more than 78,000 social media posts written in Dari and Pashto between June and December 2021 and the same period in 2022. The research found ‘a staggering rise in online hate’ targeting politically engaged Afghan women, citing ‘a 217 percent increase – or a tripling – in posts containing gendered hate speech and abuse terms and the names of prominent Afghan women from the June – December period in 2021 and the same period in 2022.’
The research found that online abuse ‘was also overwhelmingly sexualised: investigators found that over 60 percent of the posts in 2022 contained sexualised terms used to target Afghan women, with an 11.09 percent increase in such terms from 2021 to 2022.
Afghan women revealed to investigators how they received direct messages including pornographic content, sexually explicit photos and threats of sexual assault, rape and death. Online abuse “creates false narratives and mindsets” about politically engaged women, one interviewee said, adding: “if you are an active woman and have a presence on social media, you are seen as a prostitute”’ The Afghan Witness research found that low-ranking members of the Taliban as well as social media users with a pro-Taliban stance wrote the majority of the abusive posts.
Activist Matiullah Wesa released
Matiullah Wesa, a highly respected education activist whose arrest in March 2023 attracted high profile attention across the world, was finally released on 27th October 2023 after seven months in detention.
The UN’s top expert on human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, said: “I welcome the release of Matiullah Wesa and call for the immediate and unconditional release of all Afghanistan human rights defenders who are arbitrarily detained for standing up for their own rights and the human rights of others.”
As previously documented, Wesa was detained by the Taliban on 27th March 2023 outside a mosque in Kabul where he was attending evening prayers. He had been bringing education services to remote communities since 2009 via his PenPath NGO. Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, PenPath has campaigned publicly and worked with tribal leaders and religious leaders for access to education for girls and to lift bans on education.
The de facto authorities’ use of violence against peaceful rallies, combined with frequent arrests and mistreatment of those detained during them, has had a chilling effect on demonstrations. Only a handful were reported during the last quarter of 2023. Women’s rights groups have tried to adapt by moving protests indoors, meeting in private houses where they take photos of placards and discuss possible advocacy activities.
Indoor protests against Taliban policies
There was a series of such protests in November 2023, prompted in part by the string of arrests of women activists in October and November 2023. For example, indoor protests took place in Badakhshan and Takhar provinces on 19th November 2023, and in Kunduz the following day calling for the release of detained women’s rights activists and demanding the international community exert greater pressure on the Taliban to change their policies.
Taliban intelligence officials have on occasion tracked down women who appeared in photos or videos of indoor protests and targeted them for harassment and detentions, meaning even this avenue of peaceful resistance poses threats of retaliation. A women’s rights activist quoted in a recent Human Rights Watch report summarised the situation: “We were first forced to leave the streets and now it’s even impossible to organise indoors. The spirit of protest is somehow suffocated in the country”.
Protest against killing of Shi’a religious scholars and civilians
Rare public demonstrations took place on 3rd December 2023 after the assassination of two religious scholars from the Shia minority in the western city of Herat two days before. Several civilians were also killed and the attack prompted rallies demanding increased security for the Shia community. A large number of women participated in the rally but the de facto authorities used force and fired shots in the air to disperse the crowd.
The Taliban de facto authorities have imposed extensive restrictions on Afghans’ freedom of expression. This affects all Afghans across the board, including media workers, members of civil society, social media content creators, artists and private citizens.
Detention and harassment of media workers
The detention and harassment of journalists and media workers since August 2021 has been well documented. Media workers are forced to exercise extensive self-censorship to avoid arrest and avoid having their media outlets closed down, but even so detentions remain common.
Sultan Ali Jawadi, manager of Nasim Private Radio, sentenced to one year in central Daikundi province. AFJC urges Taliban to review sentence, release Jawadi, as well as to allow for the reopening of the radio station. @IFEX https://t.co/1y3dw84QYt pic.twitter.com/wZDKxrm2Xd— Afghanistan Journalists Center (@AFJC_Media) December 12, 2023
The manager of the station Radio Nasim, Sultan Ali Jawadi, was summoned to court on 11th December where he was sentenced to one year in prison after being found guilty of ‘propaganda against the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ and ‘espionage for foreign countries’. Radio Nasim has been closed down. Previously, in October 2023, Taliban intelligence operatives took Ali Jawadi and two of Radio Nasim’s journalists in the city of Nili in central Daikundi Province and detained them in an unknown location
A journalist working for Pajhwok news was detained in October 2023 in Mazar-e Sharif for reporting that an explosion in the city had caused a number of casualties. Local Taliban officials objected to him having published this detail without first checking with them, illustrating the risks to media workers trying to navigate the de facto authorities’ opaque rules. He was released after local elders and media groups intervened on his behalf.
In 18th November 2023 the Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC) published a report detailing 75 violations of media freedoms between March and September 2023 (the first six months of the solar calendar used in Afghanistan). These incidents included 33 arrests, with the General Department of Intelligence (GDI) responsible for the majority of them.
The report also noted that journalists found it extremely difficult to access information from the de facto authorities, could only write about a shrinking number of approved topics, and even then had to have pre-approval before publishing or broadcasting anything.
On 17th January 2024, the Taliban’s Government Media Information Center (GMIC) summoned journalist Ehsan Akbari, the assistant bureau chief of Japanese media outlet Kyodo News, to their office in the capital, Kabul, and officials from the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) agency detained the journalist and took him to an undisclosed location. The following day, Taliban intelligence officials forced Akbari to call his family, instructing them to hand over his mobile phone to agents waiting at the family residence. Members of the Taliban intelligence unit raided the Kyodo office in Kabul on the same day, seizing security and video recording cameras, laptops, a satellite phone and documents.
The Ministry of Information and Culture has previously stated that any disputes between the government and the media should be handled through the Commission for Media Complaints and Violations and that other government departments should effectively leave journalists alone. However, in practice most media workers are detained by the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) which appears to have broad autonomy and pays no heed to the operating procedures of the Ministry of Information and Culture.
University lecturer sentenced
Rasool Parsi, an Afghan university professor, has been sentenced to 16 months in prison on charges of "insulting Islamic sanctities and propagandising against the regime".https://t.co/3v4xlxqyAh pic.twitter.com/HnKPykF6UW— Afghanistan International English (@AFIntl_En) October 30, 2023
University lecturers are another group that has been targeted with harassment and detention for peacefully expressing their views. University professor and religious expert Rasool Parsi was sentenced to 16 months on 30th October 2023 for ‘insulting Islamic sanctities and propagandising against the regime’. The sentence combined four months for blasphemy with one year for propaganda against the de facto authorities. He was originally detained back in March 2023; reports suggest he had posted comments critical of extremism on social media prior to his arrest.
Art and cultural activists targeted
Fereydoun Fakuri, director of Herat theater and one of the transgender rights defenders, was arrested by the Taliban intelligence forces. After 6 days, he is still in prison and has not been released.#bantaliban pic.twitter.com/SoP2d0c5jd— Mohammad Karimi ♧ (@karimi41132359) November 8, 2023
Writers, artists and musicians have also been harassed, detained and threatened into self-censorship. Fereydoun Fakuri, a writer and theatre director, was arrested on 31st October 2023 in the western city of Herat, reportedly by Taliban intelligence. Media reports suggest his detention was linked to criticism he had posted on social media about the ban on girls’ education. He was also known for calling for LGBTQ+ rights to be respected.
A report published in November 2023 by the Artistic Freedom Initiative in partnership with UC Berkeley School of Law detailed the risks that Afghan artists and cultural workers face in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The report describes how Taliban rule has forced artists to self-censor, hide or flee the country entirely, while the street art that was common in Kabul prior to August 2021 has been painted over with religious messages. The report also ‘exposes the serious systemic problems facing refugee artists during migration and resettlement in host countries.’
On 26th January 2024, it was reported that the Taliban had detained an Afghan poet, Izatullah Zawab, who serves as the head of Meena (Love) magazine in eastern Afghanistan and owns a bookstore in Kabul. Family members said Zawab was apprehended by the Taliban while traveling from the capital, Kabul, to eastern Nangarhar province. Zawab is renowned for his critical poetry, which some social media users speculate may have contributed to his arrest.