Two years of Taliban rule: documenting human rights abuses using open source
Report by Afghan Witness details more than 3,000 claims of human rights violations in Afghanistan under Taliban rule
15 Aug 2023
Cover image: Canva.
A PDF version of the full report is available at the bottom of the page.
When the Taliban assumed power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the group’s leadership sent a message to international governments: this time would be different. Women’s rights would be respected, security assured, and a general amnesty granted to all who had fought against the group or worked for the former government. These were the messages Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid delivered in a speech just days after the group seized Kabul.
“We have pardoned anyone, all those who had fought against us,” Mujahid announced during the Taliban’s first press conference following the takeover. He added that “Security has been assured”, and promised that women’s rights would be respected “within the framework of Sharia”. When asked about press freedom, Mujahid replied that the Taliban “are committed to media within our cultural frameworks”, and that private media can “continue to be free and independent.”
Since October 2021, Afghan Witness (AW) has been using open source data collection and analysis techniques to collect, preserve and verify user-generated content and media reports emerging from Afghanistan. This report aims to provide an overview of the project’s monitoring across four categories: human rights violations (HRVs) and abuses related to right to life, torture and liberty; the rights of women and girls; violations against vulnerable and marginalised groups, and the freedom of civil society and the media to operate. Data the project has collected and analysed over the last two years paints a very different picture to the promises made in the initial days of the Taliban takeover.
Throughout the last two years, there has been a steady stream of reports of human rights abuses. As well as widespread reports of killings, detentions and torture there are continuing reports of reprisals targeted at former Afghan defence and security forces (ANDSF), as well as arrests of civil society activists and journalists. In October 2022, the Taliban also announced the return of public punishments in Afghanistan, resulting in frequent lashings, as well as two executions, issued by the Taliban-led Supreme Court. Restrictions on women’s rights have gradually worsened throughout the last two years: after an initial period of uncertainty and a degree of flexibility at local levels, the Taliban have introduced nationwide edicts targeting women’s dress, ability to work, access to education and freedom of movement. Hundreds of reports of women being violently killed by Taliban, family members, or unknown actors have also surfaced.
AW has recorded 3,329 reports of human rights abuses since January 15, 2022 relating to infringements of the right to life, right to freedom from torture, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, women’s rights and more.
There has been a steady reporting of the killing and detention of former ANDSF members. Since January 2022, AW has recorded 112 claims of killings and 130 detentions – likely an undercount, given the high number of cases where the victims and perpetrators are unidentified.
AW has recorded 56 announcements by the Taliban-led Supreme Court issuing punishments in public to more than 350 individuals, predominantly for ‘moral’ crimes such as having an illicit relationship, sodomy and adultery.
Despite wide-ranging and increasing suppression of resistance to Taliban rule, AW has verified nearly 70 women-led street demonstrations since the first one in August 2021, in large part protesting increasing restrictions on girls’ and women’s access to education and work. Between March 1, 2023 and June 27, 2023, AW recorded and analysed 95 separate women’s protests, including 84 indoor protests and 11 street demonstrations across 12 provinces in Afghanistan.
Between January 15, 2022 and July 20, 2023, AW recorded 188 cases of women being killed by a range of actors, including family members, unknown perpetrators, and in some instances, alleged Taliban members.
Afghanistan has seen the gradual erosion of space for independent media and civil society. AW has recorded 67 reports of civil society activists and protesters being arrested between January 15, 2022 and July 20, 2023.
During the same period, AW recorded 98 reports of journalists, photographers and media commentators being detained by the Taliban across Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has seen numerous attacks by Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP) on Hazara and Shia communities since 2016. These continued during the Taliban’s first year of rule, with mosques, schools and religious celebrations targeted. Across the two year period, AW records show that ISKP have claimed 29 attacks on Hazaras and Shias, resulting in the deaths of 193 people and 454 injured since August 2021, according to media reports.
Differing trends in first and second year of rule
Based on AW’s open source monitoring, there have been some differences in trends in the first and second years of Taliban rule. The first year saw the group clamp down on dissent, with the reported arrests of women’s rights activists, journalists and protesters. The Taliban issued a series of restrictions on the media which, coupled with economic constraints and the flight of journalists, has led to the reported closures of hundreds of outlets.
The overall level of armed violence in the country immediately decreased following the Taliban takeover. However, the security situation in the first year of the group’s rule remained volatile, with IS affiliate ISKP committing regular attacks on both civilian and Taliban targets. Spring 2022 saw an offensive erupt between resistance forces and Taliban in the north of the country, which led to widespread allegations – some verified by AW – of human rights abuses committed against resistance fighters, including extrajudicial executions and mass arrests.
The second year of Taliban rule, however, has been somewhat different. Our open source monitoring indicates that as a result of both Taliban restrictions and self-censorship, media and opposition in the country have largely dispersed, though reported arrests of women’s rights activists, educational campaigners and journalists have continued. Women have continued to protest against Taliban restrictions and edicts, but protests have largely been held indoors – seemingly an attempt by protesters to conceal their identities and reduce the risk of facing arrest or violence. Despite these threats, women have still taken to the streets to protest major edicts, including the ban on women’s university education in December 2022, and the closure of beauty salons in July 2023. In both cases, AW verified examples of the Taliban responding with force, using aerial gunfire and water cannons to disperse protesters.
AW has recorded far less activity by resistance forces during the second year of the Taliban’s rule, and, after several high-profile attacks claimed by ISKP in the first few months of 2023 – mainly targeting Taliban figures – AW has also seen a drop-off in ISKP activity following a period of intensified raids against alleged IS cells in March and April. ISKP also appear to have shifted away from attacks on civilians and Hazara and Shia neighbourhoods and have focused instead on predominantly Taliban targets.
Read the full report below: