On the fifth day of the holy month of Ramadan, Matiullah Wesa, an advocate for girls’ and women’s education in Afghanistan, went to a neighborhood mosque in Kabul for evening prayers. As the 30-year-old left the mosque with his younger brother, Samiullah, he was surrounded by a group of armed men who claimed to be from the General Directorate of Intelligence, the Taliban intelligence unit.
“When my brother Samiullah asked them for their identity papers, they showed their weapons instead and took [Matiullah] away,” Attaullah Wesa, Matiullah’s older brother, told Al Jazeera.
The next morning, Samiullah, 24, was also arrested, along with another brother, Wali Mohammad, 39, when Taliban security raided their home in Kabul. Attaullah evaded arrest while in hiding.
“They beat my brothers and also took our devices, such as phones and laptops,” Attaullah, 37, said from an undisclosed location.
Matiullah’s arrest on Monday alarmed activists. The United Nations has called on the Taliban authorities to release his whereabouts and allow him access to legal representation.
“We are alarmed by the ongoing arbitrary arrests and detentions of civil society activists and media workers in Afghanistan, particularly the targeting of those who speak out against the de facto authorities’ discriminatory policies that restrict access for women and girls in education, work and most other areas of public and daily life,” UN human rights spokesperson Jeremy Laurence said on Wednesday.
Taliban critic stifles girls’ education
Matiullah has criticized the Taliban’s restrictions on the education of girls and women and has repeatedly called for the ban on their education to be reversed.
Since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, girls’ high schools remain closedand in December, universities were forbidden to women as part of the group’s crackdown on women’s rights.
“We knew something like this would happen sooner or later,” Attaullah said, referring to Matiullah’s arrest. “If you fight for the basic rights of the people, such a consequence is possible.”
Matiullah was the face of an educational organization called Pen Path, established by the Wesa brothers in 2009 to improve and promote access to education throughout Afghanistan, including in remote areas affected by decades of conflict. .
The Wesa siblings traveled by motorbike to the remotest parts of the war-torn country, taking mobile libraries with them, distributing books and campaigning on the importance of education.
Their arrests, seen as part of a repression of dissenting voiceshave drawn criticism from Afghans and the international community.
“The Taliban began by abusing, abducting and detaining women protesters,” said Sahar Fetrat, Afghan researcher in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch. “Now they have started to bully and abuse men for joining peaceful activism.”
“The Taliban fear that Afghan men and women will come together and fight for a better Afghanistan,” she told Al Jazeera.
Arbitrary arrests and detentions
The Wesa brothers are just the latest in a series of arrests by the Taliban targeting civil society activists and protesters who have spoken out against the closure of high schools and universities for girls and women in the country.
In its latest quarterly report, published in February, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented 28 cases of arbitrary arrests and detentions of civil society actors and human rights defenders in the past three months .
At least three female protesters identified as Roqiya Sai, Fatima Mohammadi and Malalai Hashemi were arrested on Sunday after taking part in protests in Kabul demanding the reopening of girls’ high schools.
The women were released the following day, but several other activists arrested earlier were held longer and alleged torture and abuse by Taliban officials.
Tamim, another Afghan activist who asked for his name to be changed because he fears repercussions from the authorities, says he was arrested and beaten in police custody for attending International Women’s Day celebrations.
“The intelligence officer came to our house and put a black bag over my head and took me to their department,” Tamim said. “They kept me there for four days and during that time they didn’t tell my family where I was.”
“I was violently beaten and tortured every day,” he said. “They have no mercy.”
Tamim, a prominent human rights activist from the days of Afghanistan’s previous Western-backed government, shared photos of his injuries with Al Jazeera. “Even talking to you about it now brings tears to my eyes,” he said.
Tamim’s family was eventually notified of his arrest, but he was held for a week before being released on bail.
Taliban defend arrest
Although the Taliban did not comment on any of the other detentions, Taliban leader and spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid did address the case of Matiullah Wesa. He told local media that Matiullah was arrested for organizing meetings and inciting the public against the Taliban system.
In another interview with Voice of America, Mujahid accused the Wesa brothers of “illegal activities” without providing any details.
Al Jazeera contacted Abdul Haq Hammad, the publications director of the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, for a comment, but had received no response at the time of publication.
Hammad said in a tweet Wednesday in an apparent reference to Matiullah: “His actions were suspicious, and the system has the right to demand an explanation from these people.”
Attaullah said the gunmen who broke into the Wesa brothers’ family home in Kabul questioned them about their work with Pen Path.
“They were unhappy with our campaigns for girls’ education, but also asked my family about the strangers we regularly interact with as part of our advocacy,” he said.
Matiullah had recently returned from a trip to Europe before his arrest.
“They asked my brother which embassy we were taking funds from. They were also unhappy with our use of the Afghan national flag,” Attaullah said, referring to the tricolor adopted by the previous republic’s government instead of the Taliban’s white flag.