Activists and journalists at risk, crackdown on protests in Afghanistan following Taliban takeover

Activists and journalists at risk, crackdown on protests in Afghanistan following Taliban takeover
The Taliban announce an all-male interim government for Afghanistan (Photo Credit: Tolo News)

On 15th August 2021, the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan after the government collapsed and two weeks before the US was set to complete its troop withdrawal. Taliban fighters swept into Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, facing little resistance from Afghan government forces.

Fearful that the Taliban would carry out revenge attacks against those who worked with the Americans or the government and reimpose the harsh interpretation of Islamic law, Afghans rushed to leave the country. Many scrambled to the Kabul airport where US forces were still in charge and which was the only remaining exit point from Afghanistan as the Taliban held control of all ground routes. International civil society groups mobilised to support and identify escape routes for their partners including activists, journalists and others who were at risk of reprisals from the Taliban because of their work. Over the next two weeks, there was an airlift of tens of thousands of Afghans and others seeking to escape the country before the US completed its withdrawal on 31st August.

At the UN Human Rights Council, a special session was called by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on 24th August 2021, co-sponsored by Afghanistan and a number of UN Member States. Despite urgent requests from civil society to establish an international monitoring and accountability mechanism in response to rights abuses and to prevent a looming humanitarian crisis, the resolution adopted fell short of this bare minimum request and failed to effectively address grave human rights violations in the country.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution on 30th August that called for the Taliban to facilitate safe passage for people wanting to leave Afghanistan, allow humanitarians to access the country and uphold human rights, including for women and children.

During a news conference in Kabul on 17th August 2021, a Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, sought to reassure Afghan civilians and the international community about the new government’s support for human rights, including the rights of women and girls, media freedom and protection for former government personnel. However, a month on, the actions of the Taliban seem to be inconsistent with its commitments.

On 7th September 2021, the Taliban announced an all-male Afghan cabinet and abolished the country's Ministry of Women's Affairs. Out of the 22 ministers, 17 of them are on the UN sanctions list including the head of the government.

On 13th September 2021, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, reported on civilian casualties and human rights abuses as a result of the fighting in the Panjshir valley. There were credible allegations of the Taliban conducting house-to-house searches looking for specific government officials and people who cooperated with US security forces; reprisal killings of a number of former Afghan security personnel; and reports of civilians who worked for previous administrations and their family members being arbitrarily detained.

In contradiction to assurances that the Taliban would uphold women's rights, over the past three weeks women have instead been progressively excluded from the public sphere. According to local activists, women except in the health sector, have not been allowed to go to their offices and to wait until further notice.

Civic space violations have been documented including house-to-house searches for activists, excessive use of force or firearms against peaceful protesters and raids as well as the torture and ill-treatment of journalists with impunity.


Taliban targets activists creating a climate of fear

According to a news report on 18th August 2021, activists are facing systematic intimidation throughout the country. As the Taliban takes over territories, one of the first things that it does is go into houses which they know house women activists, with their names on a list, and start interrogating them and their families and demanding to look at their work. This has spread an enormous level of terror among women's rights activists.

Another news report on 20th August also highlighted house-to-house searches for activists and journalists in at least four provincial cities, even going to local mosques or using corrupt police officers to find information.

A human rights activist in western Afghanistan, who has gone into hiding, said that her neighbours told her that Taliban fighters were going to the neighbourhood mosque and asking people if they know of of activists, journalists or anyone else that has worked with foreigners, including with NGOs. Another human rights activist in north-eastern Afghanistan said that a Taliban member has used a local mosque to announce their intention “to hunt down” people. He said that the Taliban are working with corrupt police officers to get details about activists and journalists – where they live, where they used to work and who they worked with.

According to activists that spoke to CIVICUS, between 16th August and 13th September 2021, the Taliban conducted several raids on women-led NGOs across Afghanistan and in some cases, they confiscated their vehicles and sealed their offices. In a Western province, a prominent women rights defender reported that Taliban was now in control of her office and are using it as a military post. They also destroyed the equipment in the office and are using the NGO’s vehicles.

On 13th September 2021, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also reported that they had received information regarding Taliban raids on offices of some non-governmental organisations and civil society groups.

Peaceful Assembly

Excessive and lethal force used by Taliban to quash protests

Following the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, thousands have taken to the streets, especially women, to hold anti-Taliban protests as well as to demand their rights. There have been reports that in Kabul, the capital, as well as other cities, the Taliban has responded with excessive force, gunfire and beatings to disperse crowds, leading to deaths and injuries of peaceful protesters.

In the north-eastern city city of Jalalabad, at least three people were killed on 18th August 2021 and more than a dozen wounded after Taliban fighters opened fire during protests against the group for taking down the national flag and raising the Taliban flag. The Taliban also reportedly beat protesters and journalists.

In the city of Asadabad, in north-eastern Kunar province, a group of people celebrating Independence Day on 19th August, carrying the country’s national flag and chanting, “Long live Afghanistan,” was fired at by the Taliban. Three people were reportedly killed and three others injured.

In Kabul, a crowd of men and women shouted, “Our flag, our identity”, and waved red and green national flags on Independence Day, a video posted on social media showed. According to Al Jazeera, the Taliban pushed the protesters back with a heavy volley of gunfire.

According to local media reports, on 4th September 2021 around a hundred women activists gathered close to the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, carrying banners and chanting slogans for an equal society. To prevent them from reaching the palace, Taliban security forces fired their weapons into the air, sending protesters fleeing. They used tear gas and batons to disrupt the remainder of the protest. Some women were beaten by the Taliban during the protest.

On 7th September 2021 a protest in Kabul against Pakistan’s support to Taliban forces, including airstrikes in Panjshir province, was disrupted by the Taliban who fired weapons into the air. A number of journalists were briefly detained and some were reportedly ill-treated. Dozens of women were prevented by the Taliban from participating in the protests. On the same day, at least five protesters were shot dead in the cities of Herat and Badakhshan by the Taliban, with dozens injured.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, a largely female group of demonstrators gathered in the Dashti-Barchi area of Kabul on 8th September. At least five journalists were arrested and two severely beaten for several hours. There were also reports that during a demonstration in Faizabad city in Badakhshan province held by several women, including activists and human rights defenders, the Taliban fired in the air and allegedly beat several of the protesters. A small group of women who had gathered to protest elsewhere in Kabul were violently dispersed, as the Taliban fired shots into the air over their heads. That same day, women were violently dispersed during protests in Kapisa and Takhar provinces, and several women’s rights activists in Kapisa were detained.

On 10th September 2021, the Taliban announced a ban on all protests in Kabul and other provinces in Afghanistan which have not obtained prior permission. The group released a statement saying no one is allowed to go on to the street to demonstrate without authorisation from the justice and interior ministry. According to the UN, a day later the Taliban ordered telecommunications companies to switch off access to the internet on mobile phones in specific areas of the capital, Kabul.


Journalists at risk under the Taliban

Journalists have been at increased risk following the Taliban takeover, with raids on their homes and attacks on them for covering the situation on the ground. Further, at least 14 journalists were detained by the Taliban while covering protests in Kabul in early September 2021, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Of those journalists, at least nine experienced violence while detained.

On 9th August 2021, suspected Taliban fighters kidnapped Nematullah Hemat, a reporter for the privately owned news channel Gharghasht TV. Hemat’s whereabouts remain unknown. The group also shot and killed Toofan Omar, a manager of the privately-owned radio station Paktia Ghag Radio.

On 18th August, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the Taliban had searched the homes of at least four journalists and news agency employees, including those of at least three employees of the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW). The employees were not in their homes at the time of the raids and have gone into hiding. Taliban militants also searched the home of a freelance journalist and interpreter who formerly worked with freelance U.S. journalist Wesley Morgan.

Taliban fighters hunting a DW journalist reportedly shot dead a member of his family and seriously injured another. The Taliban were conducting a house-to-house search to try and find the journalist, who now works in Germany.

On 25th August, Taliban fighters assaulted a reporter with the privately-owned broadcaster TOLO News, hitting him on the back and waist with their rifles and slapping and punching him in the face as he interviewed day labourers in the Shahr-e-Naw neighborhood in Kabul. When he identified himself as a journalist, the Taliban continued to beat and insult him.

On the same day, Taliban fighters detained a reporter and camera operator with the privately-owned Pakistani news channel Khyber News while the two were reporting in Kandahar city. They were released on 27th August.

On 7th September 2021, Human Rights Watch reported that Taliban security forces had detained two journalists from the Kabul-based media outlet Etilaat-e Roz. The reporters had been covering protests by women in Kabul demanding an end to Taliban violations of the rights of women and girls. The Taliban authorities took the two men to a police station in Kabul, placed them in separate cells and severely beat them with cables.

One of the journalists said: “They stepped on my head on the other side and they were pressing their foot on my head, my face was on the mosaic floor, and I was trying to pull myself due to the pain and to tell them to hit me on all sides and not just hit me on my back…they were using such violence that one was holding me by my head and face and another one was holding me by my waist. My hands and feet were tied and one of them was pushing my legs like a sling. I had a feeling that my neck may break, or my back may break”.

Both men were released on 8th September and received medical care at a hospital for injuries to their backs and faces.

There have also been reports of the Taliban asking women journalists in the government-owned media platforms not to come to work. A journalist with RTA Pashto said: “I went to my office the next morning where I was told to not come to work. When I asked what the reason was, they said the rules have now changed and women are not allowed to work in RTA any more”.