The Taliban’s violent crackdown on a women’s rights demonstration in Kabul last weekend marks an alarming and unlawful escalation of efforts to suppress peaceful protest and free speech in Afghanistan.
Human Rights Watch spoke with two protesters and a witness and reviewed video footage of the incident.
Armed Taliban members were already present when women gathered at a planned meeting place on January 16, reinforcing organizers’ fears that the authorities had infiltrated their communications. Some fled when they saw the Taliban, but about 25 women started marching to Kabul University as planned. Taliban members pointed firearms at the marchers, threatening and insulting them, calling them “puppets of the West” and “whores.” One protester said Taliban members also assaulted bystanders filming the protest and took their phones, which an AFP reporter confirmed.
As the protesters reached Kabul University, a larger Taliban group was waiting in pickup trucks and surrounded the women. Two protesters told Human Rights Watch that Taliban members used an electric device to shock one of them and other protesters. As the protesters tried to escape the Taliban encirclement, they were sprayed with a chemical substance such as pepper spray that caused severe irritation of their skin, eyes, and respiratory tract. A protester said she was still experiencing coughing and painful skin irritation 24 hours later. She said Taliban members hit her and physically assaulted other protesters. They followed some of the protesters as they began to make their way home.
Since taking over Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, the Taliban have rolled back the rights of women and girls, including blocking access to education and employment for many. Women’s rights activists have staged a series of protests; the Taliban has responded by banning unauthorized protests.
International human rights law protects the right of peaceful assembly and requires authorities at all levels to facilitate such assemblies and avoid unnecessary or disproportionate restrictions on them. International standards prohibit the use of unnecessary or excessive force against protesters. The United Nations “Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement” says that electrical weapons and chemical irritants should not be used in situations of purely passive resistance to orders from officials.