An Afghan rights campaigner who advocated for girls’ inclusion in education has been released by Taliban authorities after seven months in jail.
Matiullah Wesa, who travelled the country campaigning for girls to have access to education, was arrested in March for “propaganda against the government”.
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He was released on Thursday and was “on his way home”, his brother told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
A spokesperson for the Taliban administration confirmed Wesa’s release.
The UN’s top expert on human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, welcomed Wesa’s release but highlighted the plight of hundreds of other activists targeted by the Taliban.
“I welcome the release of Matiullah Wesa and call for the immediate & unconditional release of all #Afghanistan human rights defenders who are arbitrarily detained for standing up for their own rights & the human rights of others,” he wrote on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
I welcome the release of Matiullah Wesa and call for the immediate & unconditional release of all #Afghanistan human rights defenders who are arbitrarily detained for standing up for their own rights & the human rights of others. #ZhuliaParsi #NedaParwani #RasoulAbdi https://t.co/o4yALElJXW
— UN Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett (@SR_Afghanistan) October 26, 2023
Wesa, the founder of the nonprofit organisation Pen Path, had made promoting access to education his mission for more than a decade, visiting rural villages to help revive schools shuttered by violence and to open libraries.
Wesa pledged to continue these efforts after the Taliban took over Kabul in 2021 and enforced harsh restrictions on girls and women, including banning them from schools, parks and gyms and pushing them out of government jobs.
Crackdown on activism
Wesa’s arrest triggered protests from the United Nations and international rights groups, which warned that the Taliban was increasingly cracking down on “peaceful activism” in support of women’s freedoms.
“The Taliban first started with abusing, abducting and detaining women protesters,” Sahar Fetrat, Afghan researcher with the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera at the time. “Now they have started to intimidate and abuse men for joining peaceful activism.”
“The Taliban fear Afghan men and women standing together and fighting for a better Afghanistan,” Fetrat said.
Afghanistan ranked last out of 177 countries in a report released on Tuesday by the Georgetown Institute for Peace, Women and Security that gauges women’s inclusion, justice and security in society.
Erosion of press freedoms
Wesa’s release comes shortly after the release of another high-profile detainee – French-Afghan journalist Mortaza Behboudi.
Behboudi, who had spent nine months in jail on suspicion of espionage for providing “illegal support to foreigners”, decried the worsening climate for journalists in Afghanistan.
“Everything is censored these days,” Behboudi said. “If I take a photo on the street, I risk being arrested. … There is no longer freedom of expression. There is no longer freedom of the press in Afghanistan.”