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Concerns for activists allegedly detained by Taliban last month

In November, ten activists were allegedly detained by the Taliban for their involvement in protests and women’s rights movements. Two have reportedly been released, though the whereabouts of the others remain uncertain. AW was able to speak with two other women’s rights activists, as well as friends and relatives of the detainees. The names of sources have been changed.


14 Dec 2022

Image: Afghan women hold signs as they march during a women's rights protest in central Kabul, Afghanistan October 21, 2021. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra On November 3, 2022, the Taliban reportedly detained political activist Zarifa Yaqubi and four of her male colleagues in western Kabul. According to several media reports around this time, Yaqubi and her colleagues had attended the launch of a new women’s group, ‘The Afghanistan Women’s Movement for Equality’, but were detained at the end of the conference. Open-Source Investigations (OSINT) conducted by Afghan Witness (AW) determined that the men detained alongside Yaqubi are Mohammad Sirat, Mohammad Reza Sazesh, Mohammad Alam Hekmat, and Hussain Hussainpur, also corroborated by media reports

More activists were allegedly detained in the following days. Claims of the detainment of another female activist and protester, Zainab Rahimi, circulated on November 4, while on November 10, the Taliban reportedly detained Farhat Popalzai, a founder and leading member of the ‘Spontaneous Movement of Women Warriors of Afghanistan’. According to several reports, the Taliban initially held Farhat and her father, but Farhat was detained after her mobile phone was inspected. In the following days, the Taliban allegedly detained two more women, Humaira Yusuf and Parwin Sadat. 

Recent reports by local media indicate that the number of women allegedly detained was higher than the initial figure. Shamayel Paykar, a women’s rights activist, was reportedly detained by the Taliban on the same day and at the same location as Zarifa Yaqubi. Shamayel’s family told media that the Taliban prevented them from visiting their daughter and that the Taliban searched their residence and beat them. 

It has been over one month since reports emerged of the detentions. According to other women’s rights activists AW has spoken to, Zainab Rahimi was released after two nights in detention, while Zarifa Yaqubi was reportedly released on December 12. The fate of the other eight activists - four men and four women - remains uncertain. 

AW spoke to several sources, including other activists and relatives of those allegedly detained. All names have been changed due to security concerns. 

Families worried for activists’ mental and physical health 

AW spoke to two women’s rights protesters, who say they have been in touch with the families of the activists. One of the women, who we’re calling Rahela, was detained by the Taliban in January this year. She told AW that even though Zainab Rahimi was freed after two nights, she could not go back home as she feared returning to the place where the Taliban had arrested her.  

“You know, once the Taliban detain you from your house, you can never return to that place again,” Rahela says. “The trauma is always there.” 

Rahela also points out that there is a stigma around the women-led protest movement - some families in Afghanistan have shunned female family members who joined protests. She mentions how her own relatives scolded her involvement in protests and her subsequent detainment by the Taliban. This has been echoed by other protesters AW has spoken to - in June, a woman who was previously detained by the Taliban in Balkh province told AW she faced criticism from her family and that they eventually stopped supporting her. 

Rahela told AW that with no place to go, Zainab lost all hope. She adds that she helped Zainab stay at a friend’s house for a night, and that she and others are working to find the activist another place to live until she can leave Afghanistan. 

Another women’s rights activist - who we’re calling Laila - has also been in touch with the families of the detainees. She says that when Zainab was released, signs of mental and physical torture were visible in her. 

“The mere fact of living under the Taliban is mental torture - let alone being detained by the Taliban and spending days in their detention centre,” Laila tells AW. 

When we interviewed Laila, Zarifa Yaqubi was still in detention, and Laila says Zarifa’s family were concerned for her mental and physical health. Laila tells AW that the Taliban did not allow the family to deliver her clean clothes. 

Zarifa was reportedly released on December 12, as AW published this article. Laila confirmed the release to AW but says other activists remain in Taliban custody. A Twitter account, which appears to belong to Zarifa, last tweeted on November 2, the day before she was allegedly detained. Despite her reported release, it is possible Zarifa has been made to sign a pledge not to speak out - something that two other women’s rights activists previously told AW they were made to do before being released. 

During her initial interview, Laila also shared concerns over Farhat Popalzai - who is yet to be released at the time of writing. 

“Farhat’s family describe her physical and mental health as worrying,” Laila says. “According to her family, Farhat has become very frail.” 

Laila says the family live in fear and were scared to publicise the activist’s detainment at first. 

“Farhat’s mother is extremely ill and has been admitted to a hospital due to the trauma of Farhat’s detention,” Laila explains. “They do not share details of Farhat’s situation with us because they fear losing the chance of meeting her.” 

Both Rahela and Laila believe that the women’s level of activism and media engagement has influenced the length of their detentions, but Laila adds that the Taliban employees at the detention centres do not follow any particular rules and often take decisions into their own hands, making the situation even more unpredictable. 

“In some detention centres, the Taliban are lenient, and in others, they hold more grudges towards the women protesters… you never know [how they will react],” Laila says.

Less is known about the two other women protesters, Parwin Sadat and Humaira Yusuf. Laila told AW that she knew Parwin had participated in protests and that her close friends were worried about her. In an audio recording attributed to Parwin and shared on social media, she is heard sobbing: “Two Taliban members are on the door. I am letting you know in case something happens.”

According to Laila, Humaira was not part of any mainstream women’s movement but was a teacher who protested against the Taliban individually.

The fate of the male detainees

The Taliban reportedly detained four men alongside Zarifa Yaqubi on November 3.  AW reached out to a relative and friend of two of the male detainees. Their names have been changed for their safety. 

Mohammad Sirat is one of the men purportedly detained on November 3. Sirat’s relative, Mujtaba, launched an online campaign calling for his release. Talking to AW from Iran, Mujtaba says that Sirat was an ordinary citizen and had no affiliations with any political groups. 

“Sirat had no political activities, nor did he support any political groups. His main goal in life was to revive cultural and human rights values,” Mujtaba says. 

He tells AW that Sirat’s father has been trying to get him released through bail - but has been unsuccessful so far - and that the whole family are very concerned about him. 

AW was also able to talk to Mahdi, a friend of Mohammad Alam Hekmat, who was also allegedly detained on November 3. Mahdi tells AW that Alam was participating in advocacy programmes even before the Taliban’s takeover. When the group seized power, Alam’s activism became more of a risk. 

“I could not meet Alam in person since the Taliban seized power, but learned that the Taliban detained him and that even his family no longer has reliable information about him,” Mahdi told AW. 

Taliban: “Hands from outside” behind protesters

The alleged detentions have sparked international condemnation. On November 4, the United Nations Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) expressed concerns over the detentions and said they had engaged the Taliban on the situation of Zarifa Yaqubi and four other detainees.

The US diplomatic mission to Afghanistan called on the Taliban to release the activists on November 5. The Taliban have not officially responded, however, Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s Spokesperson, said in a press conference the same day:

“Hands from outside are behind them [women protesters], and they are encouraged to protest and make a noise and create a kind of disbelief, in which we see the hands and our organisations discover them.”

The Taliban linking women’s protests to activists in the diaspora and the West is ubiquitous. They formerly accused activist Tamana Paryani - reportedly detained by the Taliban in January along with another woman, Parwana Ibrahimkhel - of defaming the Taliban to secure asylum abroad. Around the time of the women’s alleged detainment, Mujahid denied any women were being held, but in an interview with AFP, said authorities had the right "to arrest and detain dissidents or those who break the law".

Despite the Taliban implying that women protesters are being backed by the West, women’s rights activists interviewed by AW feel alone in their civil resistance. On November 14,  some women activists sent letters to the United Nations Security Council under the collective title "One Hundred Cries for Justice". The letters were a brief and documented account of Afghan women’s lives under the Taliban. 

Both Rahela and Laila share their concerns over the international community’s lack of attention and support towards Afghanistan’s women-led movements.

“We shared the detentions of our colleagues with international organisations and foreign diplomatic missions,” Laila says. “We even wrote a hundred letters to the UN Security Council, but unfortunately, all our efforts were met with little attention and response.”

According to media, many foreign NGOs previously operating in Afghanistan were forced to flee as international donors pulled out of Afghanistan, in some cases, reportedly leaving behind their own staff. However, an article by Al Jazeera describes how “female activists have steadily been building support networks for marginalised women”, creating grassroots organisations, documenting cases of gender-based violence, and establishing safe spaces for women in various provinces.

Although Laila says there has been little support from outside of Afghanistan, she remains optimistic about the resilience of the women’s movements. 

“Women’s movements in Afghanistan sparked hope in the country,” she says. “They will continue to fight no matter what.” 

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