For more than 10 years, Fereshta Abbasi has investigated and documented human rights violations in Afghanistan. Currently, she is a researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. Before that she was a legal advisor at the International Development Law Organization, where one of her duties involved the development of legal skills for Afghanistan’s justice personnel. She holds a master’s degree in international law and strategic studies from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.?
Zan Times interviewed her in May 2023 to learn about her role in documenting human rights violations, especially against women and religious and sexual minorities, and the difficulties involved in such work. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.?
Zan Times: There have been numerous media reports of persistent human rights violations by the Taliban, including torture, murder, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture and murder. What activities have you undertaken to document such cases?
Fereshta Abbasi: Human Rights Watch has been active in Afghanistan for many years. If you visit the organization’s website archive, you will find reports on events dating back to the 1990s when the Taliban first seized control of Afghanistan, as well as human rights violations during the early 1990s civil wars, including the 1993 Afshar Massacre. Reports produced by our organization hold international credibility, and what is most important is that we truly understand Afghanistan.?
Since August 2021, with the intensification of human rights violations due to the Taliban’s retaking of power, our workload has increased. We did not delay in documenting the Taliban’s arbitrary arrests of journalists, civil activists, and former security forces members, as well as the massacres, torture, and public executions they committed despite their declaration of a general amnesty. We were aware of these cases daily and documented them. Several reports have been published and are available on the Human Rights Watch website, covering all these incidents. For example, we have published reports on the restrictions imposed on independent media in Afghanistan. Last year, we published a report on the killings of individuals in Kandahar and Nangarhar accused of collaborating with or being members of ISIS, and we were able to document the bodies of nearly 54 individuals.
Unfortunately, currently, there is no system in Afghanistan for someone accused of being a member of ISIS to go through a legal process, have a court hearing where the accused can be present and recognized, and then be sentenced accordingly. The Taliban members serve as soldiers, lawmakers, and enforcers, all at the same time, which complicates the situation. It is very challenging to provide accurate statistics on the number of people killed or tortured in Afghanistan in the past 19 months. The limited access to information has made it increasingly difficult, which also hampers the activities of organizations like Human Rights Watch.
ZT: What do we know about the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan, in terms of their legal and social status? Have they had sufficient opportunities for asylum??
Abbasi: Unfortunately, the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan is one of the most vulnerable groups in the country. They face significant challenges and lack support from protective systems. We published a report on the LGBTQ+ community after August 15, 2021, and had conversations with some community members. While the situation for this group was already difficult before the collapse of the previous government, I had previously researched their vulnerability and lack of legal support. Afghanistan’s legal system did not provide adequate protection for these individuals.?
Since the Taliban assumed power, the situation has worsened considerably. The severity of the circumstances can only be imagined, and it is rare to hear civil society organizations or individuals, both within and outside the country, who were previously abroad or are currently in exile, openly discussing these issues. Limited access to resources has been a longstanding challenge for the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan, even over the past 20 years. This has resulted in individual activists advocating for their rights.?
Even when the U.S.-backed government was in power, it was disturbingly common for members of this community to be targeted and killed daily in various provinces of Afghanistan, without eliciting significant concern. Even when they sought help from the police regarding cases of sexual harassment and assault, the authorities often dismissed their experiences.?
This lack of empathy and support towards the LGBTQ+ community was evident not only among the police but also within the government’s judicial system, which was backed by the U.S. and NATO. Now, the Taliban’s extremist statements and views deny the existence of this social group in Afghanistan. As a result, LGBTQ+ individuals are unable to openly participate in society, their very identity becomes a criminal offence, and they are unable to leave their homes while being true to themselves. Presently, Afghanistan is a hostile environment for religious and sexual minorities as well as gender-based minorities.
ZT: How would you assess the human rights situation of ethnic and religious minorities, such as Sikhs and Hindus, under the rule of the Taliban?
Abbasi: The situation for ethnic and religious minorities, including Sikhs and Hindus, under Taliban rule, is deeply concerning. In recent months, we have focused on the issue of religious freedom in Afghanistan, and it is clear that, under the Taliban’s regime, religious freedom no longer exists. The Taliban’s objective has been to impose their extremist interpretation of Islam, leaving no room for other religious beliefs. This has resulted in a lack of support and protection for minority groups.
For instance, Sikhs in Afghanistan experienced an exodus after an explosion targeted their place of worship in Kabul. They have faced significant challenges and are deprived of religious freedom. Similarly, other religious minority groups such as Sufis, Jews, and Christians, although small in number, also face the same restrictions and lack of rights.
Another major concern is the targeting of minority groups by extremist organizations like ISIS. The Shia community and the Hazaras have been particularly vulnerable, with more than 20 attacks by ISIS resulting in numerous deaths and injuries. Despite these attacks, the Taliban, who promote their extreme version of Islam, do not provide adequate support or empathy to these minority groups. When speaking to the family members of victims of an ISIS attack on the Kaaj educational centre in Kabul last year, we learned that the Taliban members treated them with brutality and showed no compassion. Based on our assessment, we issued a statement last year unequivocally stating that religious freedom no longer exists in Afghanistan.??
ZT: What do your findings indicate regarding reports of non-combatants being targeted by the Taliban during the fights in Panjshir and Andarab [areas with large Persian-speaking Tajik communities]? There are videos circulating on social media depicting these incidents.
Abbasi: We have been closely monitoring the situation in Panjshir, and it is indeed a matter of great concern. Based on the information we have gathered and verified, there are indications that war crimes may have taken place in Panjshir. In a statement issued last year, we highlighted the incidents occurring in Panjshir and expressed our concerns regarding the treatment of local individuals who were accused of having connections with anti-Taliban groups. Our report documented cases of torture and imprisonment of individuals associated with the opposing front.
Before releasing our statement, we thoroughly reviewed reports of mistreatment and had significant concerns regarding the detention of several members of the opposition by the Taliban. We emphasized that, under international human rights laws, the torture of prisoners is strictly prohibited and any such incidents would be considered war crimes. Our recent statement also reiterates our position on the situation in Panjshir.
However, it’s important to note that access to Panjshir is limited, similar to the rest of Afghanistan. While we have made efforts to gather information and document the situation, the challenges of restricted access pose limitations. Nevertheless, based on the information we have been able to verify, there is a possibility that war crimes have occurred in Panjshir.??
ZT: Have you conducted any reports or investigations regarding the Taliban’s operations against Mawlawi Mahdi in the Balkhab district of Sar-e Pul province? There have been reports of indiscriminate firing and the escape of a large number of non-combatants, and UNAMA has announced its intention to investigate potential human rights violations in Balkhab.
Abbasi: We have been closely monitoring the situation in Balkhab. Since the Taliban came to power, our work has faced challenges due to the unpredictable nature of events. When sudden fighting erupted in Balkhab, access to information from the area became limited making it difficult for us to ascertain the exact situation. Our team members have dedicated their efforts to understanding and gathering information during such critical times.
We received reports of civilian casualties and forced displacement as a result of the fighting in Balkhab. Promptly, we expressed our concerns and issued a statement highlighting our lack of precise information about the situation. We immediately initiated efforts to gather more information and collaborated with relevant organizations to gain a clearer understanding of the events unfolding in Balkhab.
Based on the reports we received, the situation appeared to be alarming, with indications of human rights violations taking place. Our statement emphasized the importance of protecting civilian individuals, particularly women, and children, during conflicts. We called on the Taliban to ensure that their members do not harm the civilian population in such situations.
ZT: Can you provide any statistics on the number of women and girls who have been detained by the Taliban in the past year and the current number of women and girls in Taliban prisons?
Abbasi: Our report on the conditions in Taliban prisons and detention centers sheds light on the experiences of individuals, including women and girls, who have been detained by the Taliban. It discusses the challenges they face during their detention and the impact on their lives, as well as the pressure faced by their families.
However, it is important to note that obtaining specific statistics is difficult due to the restrictions imposed on local media. Local journalists have reported constraints on reporting, particularly in regions such as Kandahar, Uruzgan, and Helmand, where media outlets are unable to freely report on various incidents. This lack of media coverage limits the availability of information at a broader level.
An example of this restriction is the case of a young man in Helmand who criticized the Taliban on social media for the increase in food prices. He was subsequently detained, tortured, and killed by the Taliban. While this incident was known locally in Helmand, media outlets were unable to report it. These limitations make it challenging to provide precise statistics on the number of women protesters currently in Taliban custody.
We primarily rely on information about individuals who have gained media attention or have been reported by the public. Gathering comprehensive statistics on the number of activists or detainees in specific regions like Kunduz or Kandahar is extremely difficult due to the restricted flow of information.
ZT: What information do you have about the treatment of detained protesters by the Taliban, and what documented evidence is available in this regard?
Abbasi: The treatment of detained protesters by the Taliban is a cause for serious concern, and while we don’t have comprehensive documented evidence, we can infer from their behavior and testimonies of those who have been detained. When individuals are arrested by the Taliban, they are often unaware of the reasons for their arrest, and their fundamental rights are violated.
Based on conversations with women protesters who have been detained, we have learned that they have experienced physical and psychological torture. These actions not only affect the detainees themselves but also put pressure on their families. These are some of the limited details we have been able to gather and discuss.
One significant issue is the lack of accountability of the Taliban. They are not answerable to any institution or authority for their actions, which allows them to act with impunity. Many detainees, including journalists and protesters, are often released without understanding why they were arrested in the first place.
It is important to note that the Taliban’s oppressive regime has created an environment where people find it difficult to speak out about these violations. The intelligence agency of the Taliban plays a key role in detentions, and families of detainees have reportedly been warned not to discuss the situation. In a situation where there is no rule of law and limited protection, people are hesitant to openly talk about the regime-induced violations that are occurring.
While comprehensive documented evidence is limited due to restrictions and fear of reprisals, the available information and testimonies indicate serious human rights abuses and violations against detained protesters.??
ZT: Have human rights watchdogs conducted any specific reports or investigations on forced marriages?
Abbasi: While we do not have a specific report solely focused on forced marriages, the prevailing conditions in Afghanistan create an environment where forced marriages can occur. The restrictions placed on women and girls, such as the requirement for a male guardian to leave their homes, limited access to education and employment, and restrictions on their mobility, make them vulnerable to coerced marriages.
There can be various reasons behind these forced marriages. In some cases, it may be driven by the security situation, where a woman’s safety and protection may be seen as best ensured through marriage. Additionally, the lack of a male guardian [mahram] to accompany her and provide for her can also contribute to a woman being compelled into a marriage. In a society where women often lack independent identities and have limited agency, it is unfortunately not uncommon for forced marriages to occur.??
ZT: What actions have human rights watchdogs taken to pressure the Taliban?
Abbasi: Human rights watchdogs have been actively engaged in pressuring the Taliban through various means. One of the key actions taken is the publication of reports that document human rights violations committed by the Taliban. These reports serve to raise awareness and draw attention to the dire situation in Afghanistan.
Additionally, human rights organizations have consistently spoken out against the Taliban’s actions and expressed their concerns. They have called for justice, accountability, and respect for human rights. Advocacy efforts have been directed toward international bodies, such as the United Nations, urging them to take action and impose restrictions on the Taliban.
For example, last year, we specifically called for the extension of travel restrictions on Taliban officials by the UN Security Council. We highlighted the contradiction of allowing the Taliban to travel freely while they confined women to their homes and denied them their rights. Furthermore, human rights watchdogs have welcomed and supported measures taken by other international actors. The recent imposition of sanctions by the European Union on specific Taliban members demonstrates an increased effort to put pressure on the group.
Another significant focus of advocacy has been the issue of girls’ education. Human rights watchdogs have actively advocated for the rights of girls to attend school, highlighting the importance of education for their empowerment and development.
Despite the challenges posed by the Taliban’s reluctance to change, human rights watchdogs remain committed to standing with the people in Afghanistan, particularly women, and amplifying their voices. Through documentation, advocacy, and global awareness campaigns, they strive to shed light on the situation and exert pressure on the Taliban to respect human rights and uphold international standards.
ZT: Reflecting on the experiences and findings of human rights watchdogs concerning the human rights situation in Afghanistan, what measures can be implemented to support and defend the human rights of individuals, particularly women?
Abbasi: Expressing a concrete answer to this question is quite challenging. However, I can speak more confidently about the state of human rights in Afghanistan and how the situation has deteriorated. The question of finding solutions to aid women in Afghanistan weighs on all of our minds. Unfortunately, the people of Afghanistan are enduring incredibly difficult circumstances, with over 90 percent of them lacking sufficient access to food, as per UN statistics. Regrettably, Afghanistan stands as the only country where girls and women are denied their fundamental rights to education and employment, and this situation continues to worsen each day. Determining what can truly transform the lives of women is a complex endeavor.
Nevertheless, a glimmer of hope lies in the women who persistently fight for their rights from within. I hold deep admiration for those women who continue to take to the streets, raising their voices and demanding “Bread, Work, Freedom.” I firmly believe that the resistance in Afghanistan is primarily led by women, whether we fully acknowledge it or not. They are at the forefront of this movement, fighting not only for their rights but for the human rights of all people. In such critical conditions, one crucial step we can take is to amplify their voices. We possess the privilege to speak out beyond the borders of Afghanistan, to strengthen this chorus, and advocate alongside it.
Let us engage in discussions and report on Afghanistan. Let us ensure that Afghanistan does not fade into obscurity, becoming a forgotten nation that is rarely mentioned. Furthermore, let us not allow the ongoing events in Afghanistan to become normalized. These are the minimum actions we can undertake to contribute.
ZT: In your opinion, what is the role of international organizations, particularly human rights defenders, in addressing this situation?
Abbasi: Human rights organizations bear a significant responsibility today that surpasses what was expected of them in the past. Their tasks include documenting cases, reporting on the situation in Afghanistan, and advocating the extent that policymakers feel compelled to change their policies regarding the country. The issue of accountability has been discussed for the past two decades, yet unfortunately, no one has been held accountable so far. Therefore, it is crucial to document the ongoing incidents as the first step towards achieving accountability. The journey toward justice may be long and could span several years.
An example of this is the International Criminal Court, which resumed its investigations in Afghanistan last October after a 16-year hiatus. These are long-term processes that inevitably face challenges and gaps. However, it is essential for these institutions to diligently document the incidents that occur, enabling us to accumulate sufficient evidence and hold those responsible accountable for their actions.
*Alongside Zan Times, Women’s eNews is publishing stories from mainly women journalists working both inside and outside Afghanistan, telling stories of the marginalized populations who rarely have a voice to shape and inform public discourse, believing that change begins with awareness. Having previously worked as journalists in Afghanistan, they are aware of the challenges, dangers, and opportunities of working in the media landscape and are doing their part to make sure the stories of the country are told.