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Mysterious Attacks On Afghan Activists, Journalists Raise Fears Over Free Speech Under Taliban


Taliban members attempt to stop women from protesting for their rights in Kabul.

The Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan had already left free speech and media freedoms out in the cold. A recent spate of mysterious attacks on activists and journalists has raised fears that the worst may be yet to come.

The situation took an alarming turn last week with the brutal assault of a journalist at his home and widespread efforts to track down and detain participants in recent women's rights demonstrations.

Zaki Qais, who was a journalist for 20 years before leaving the independent Khawar TV broadcaster shortly after the Taliban seized control of Kabul in mid-August, sustained cuts and bruises to his head and neck when he opened his front gate to answer a request for help on January 15.

"Someone grabbed me by the back of my hair and another person in front of me pulled the gate toward me," he told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi of the unidentified gunmen awaiting in front of his home in the capital. "They were pulling the gate like scissors on both sides of my neck."

A member of the Taliban speaks with women protesters as another tries to block the view of the camera during a demonstration held outside a school in Kabul.
A member of the Taliban speaks with women protesters as another tries to block the view of the camera during a demonstration held outside a school in Kabul.

Qais was struck in the head with an unidentified object and narrowly avoided being stabbed with a knife before he was able to close the gate, he said.

Qais was unable to identify his attackers but has said he has been harassed and beaten repeatedly by the Taliban authorities and the group's supporters. The confrontation left Qais rattled enough to go into hiding with his family.

The Taliban has not commented on the assault, which has led to demands for an investigation by media observers.

“Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers must immediately launch an investigation to identify and bring to justice those who attacked journalist Zaki Qais,” Steven Butler, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Asia program coordinator, said in a statement on January 19.


Qais is not alone. In the past week, women who have participated in a string of demonstrations in recent months for more freedoms have been beaten and detained by gunmen.

Many of those who have avoided capture have fled in search of safety. One woman protester told Radio Azadi that she and others left their homes in the dead of night after the Taliban started to round up demonstrators on January 19, leaving some of the women in "the open air and snow."

Tamana Zaryabi Paryani and Parwana Ibrahimkhel were reportedly arrested that night by men claiming to be Taliban intelligence operatives. The two women have participated in demonstrations in Kabul, including an "anti-hijab" protest on January 16 that was broken up when Taliban police fired pepper spray.

Afghan journalists Neamat Naqdi and Taqi Daryabi arrive at their office after being released from Taliban custody in Kabul in September.
Afghan journalists Neamat Naqdi and Taqi Daryabi arrive at their office after being released from Taliban custody in Kabul in September.

Three days later, a self-shot video posted on social media showed Paryani pleading for help as someone pounds on the front door to her apartment.

"Help, please, the Taliban has come to our home," she said. "Only my sisters are home."

There are differing reports about Paryani's and Ibrahimkhel's situation, with some Afghan media outlets reporting their release and others saying their whereabouts remain unknown. Some reports have suggested that three of Paryani’s sisters were also arrested.

A Taliban police spokesman publicly dismissed Paryani's video as manufactured drama but attempts by Radio Azadi to obtain comment on the case went unanswered.

A spokesman for Taliban intelligence, meanwhile, did not confirm nor deny the reported arrests of Paryani and Ibrahimkhel, but did offer a cryptic response on Twitter.

“Insulting the religious and national values of the Afghan people is not tolerated anymore,” Khalid Hamraz tweeted in reference to the Kabul protest, during which demonstrators burned a burqa, the all-encompassing garment Afghan women have been ordered to wear by the Taliban’s religious police.

Hamraz also accused rights activists of smearing the Taliban to seek asylum abroad.

The extremist group, infamous for its brutal reign in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 during which it barred women from working and banned girls' education, said upon returning to power that it would allow freedom of expression if it was within the framework of Islamic principles and national interests.

Taliban fighters fired into the air to disperse Afghan women protesting against restrictions in Kabul on December 28, 2021.
Taliban fighters fired into the air to disperse Afghan women protesting against restrictions in Kabul on December 28, 2021.

But resistance to the return of restrictive measures against women and girls -- including the mandatory wearing of the burqa, orders that women be accompanied by a male relative when in public, and constraints on girls' education -- has been frequently met with Taliban violence.

Journalists covering the women's protests have also been detained, leading to increased concerns about their safety and the future of free media in Afghanistan.

Dozens of media outlets have been closed since August, and nearly eight out of 10 journalists have reportedly been forced to find other work. Those that do remain in operation often do so under pressure and self-censorship, according to media watchdogs.

In its annual World Report 2022, Human Rights Watch said the Afghan media faces threats not only from the Taliban but also from Islamic State militants who have assassinated several journalists.

But ultimately it is up to the Taliban to protect journalists, according to Nasir Ahmad Nuri, a lawyer for the Afghanistan Free Media Support Agency.

"The Emirate group is the mastermind and in control of everything that happens in Afghanistan," Nuri told Radio Azadi. "If they are not accountable and the situation continues like this, the media will not have security and the doors of each media outlet will be closed one after another."

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