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Detained Women Activists In Afghanistan Apparently Forced To Confess Before Release

Taliban fighters fire shots in the air to disperse women protesters in Kabul.

For months, Afghan women have challenged the Taliban by demonstrating for their rights.

The Taliban has cracked down on the protests through harassment, force, and even the abduction of activists, according to rights groups.

Now the Taliban authorities appear to be using a new tactic to intimidate women’s rights advocates: airing so-called confessions in which women say activists based outside the country had told them to protest.

On February 21, the Taliban Interior Ministry released a video of several women who said they had been encouraged by foreign-based activists to take to the streets by offering them the chance to relocate or send their children to study abroad. They also said that unlike what they expected from the Taliban, they were not treated harshly by the militants.

The women are reportedly among 29 women and their families who disappeared from a safe house in Kabul earlier this month. Rina Amiri, U.S. Special Envoy for Afghan women, had said on Twitter at the time that the women were among 40 people seized in the Afghan capital. She later deleted her tweet without providing an explanation.

The video has led to anger and accusations that the Taliban extracted the so-called confessions under duress. The tactic is widely used by authoritarian regimes, including neighboring Iran’s, to discredit activists and critics.

Samira Hamidi, deputy regional director at Amnesty International, said the Taliban is attempting to silence protesters and those who have challenged the extremist group’s human rights record.

“If you pay attention to the video, the mental state of the protesting women [shows] that they’re under pressure,” Hamidi told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.

Hamidi also said on Twitter that it wasn’t clear what kind of pressure the women may have faced to confess that they were protesting in an effort to help them flee the country.

“[The] Taliban tactic is dirty [and] dangerous. It gives a strong message that by reprisal [and] force they can do anything,” Hamidi said.

Heather Barr, associate women's rights director at Human Rights Watch, highlighted a big question on Twitter, asking: “How were these women treated while they were abducted and held by the Taliban?”

“When you detain people without charge, lie and say you haven't detained them, and deny them access to lawyers, family, and advocates, no one is surprised when you cap those abuses off with a choreographed confession,” Barr added.

For her part, Fawzia Koofi, a lawmaker and peace negotiator for the former government, condemned the release of the video as “a crime.”

“It is a crime to make a forced confession [and] publish the picture of women in a way that harms their character and dignity,” Koofi said on Twitter.

“You have taken the right to life away from the women of my country and you expect no one to protest? You are afraid of protesting women and intend to discredit them by any means possible, this [shows] the strength of women,” she added.

In the controversial video, a spokesman for the Taliban Interior Ministry claimed the women regretted their actions.

“The women, who had been recently encouraged by some intelligence circles to demonstrate against the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and chanted slogans against the Islamic regime, were recently detained by security forces in a house,” said the spokesman, Aqel Azam. "They have confessed to the involvement of foreign intelligence circles, they have expressed regret over their actions, and now their lives have been secured by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan."

Since returning to power in Afghanistan last August, the Taliban has reimposed many of the oppressive policies it instituted against women during the group’s first stint in power, including barring girls from secondary schools and preventing many women from returning to their jobs.

In recent weeks, a number of women activists have vanished while the Taliban has denied any role in their disappearance amid heightened fears about their safety.

“I am increasingly concerned about the wellbeing of missing women activists in Afghanistan. Several have ‘disappeared’, some not heard from in weeks,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Twitter on February 10. “I strongly urge the Taliban to ensure their safety so that they can return home.”

Several of the women have reportedly been released but their whereabouts remain unknown.

The Taliban, infamous for its brutal reign in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 during which it barred women from public life, initially vowed it would protect women’s rights within the boundaries of its fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic Shari’a law.

The group, however, which formed an all-male government after taking power in August, has subsequently crushed protests and resistance to the return of such restrictive measures, including the mandatory wearing of the hijab and orders for women to be accompanied by a male guardian in public.