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A Taliban fighter raises a flag in the ruins of Sangin, Helmand province, Afghanistan, November 30, 2021. ©2021/Alfred Yaghobzadeh/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images) 

(New York) – Taliban authorities in Afghanistan’s Helmand province have threatened to retaliate against activists and former government officials in response to recent killings of Taliban commanders, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Taliban in Helmand have heightened surveillance and said that they would take retaliatory action in response to further attacks on Taliban officials. International law prohibits reprisal attacks – otherwise unlawful attacks taken as an enforcement measure – against civilians.

“Taliban leaders in Helmand should not be responding to attacks with threats of unlawful punishments,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Taliban authorities need to prevent retaliatory attacks and ensure that crimes are dealt with through a proper legal process.”

A Taliban police official in Gereshk, Helmand, told residents that district-level Taliban authorities were calling for retaliation and targeting former government officials. Residents have reported an increase in patrols and night raids, along with warnings from local Taliban officials that mass arrests will ensue if attacks continue. Afghan activists told Human Rights Watch that the Taliban in Helmand have increased their surveillance of individuals and groups they accuse of being “opposed to the Islamic Emirate.”

The threats follow a spate of attacks in which Taliban members have been abducted or killed. Haji Amanullah, 45, a Taliban commander, has been missing since February 14, 2022, when armed men accosted him outside his home in Nawai Bazaar, Gereshk district and forced him to accompany them. Three days later, a letter posted on his door said that Amanullah had been responsible for killing “innocent and poor people and government officials and had made many mothers cry… now it’s time for his mother to cry. We have killed him.” His body has not been found.

That week, two local Taliban commanders were found fatally shot in Baba Ji district. In mid-March, the body of a Taliban commander in Gereshk bearing a gunshot wound was found by his relatives behind his house. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

A local mosque official said that Taliban officials told a gathering that they “have been very patient but eventually some of those who are now working against [us] will be caught and punished.” At the same gathering, a Taliban fighter said that the leadership had cautioned their members not to seek revenge yet, but just to watch because “the attention of the international community is on us right now” and “Mullah Yaqub [the Taliban defense minister] and other leaders have said to wait.… Only observe those who are acting against [us], particularly those government officials and civil society activists who preach against the [Taliban].”

The Taliban have previously carried out revenge killings of former government officials and have forcibly disappeared or summarily executed former members of the security forces and others they accuse of being their enemies. The statements heighten concerns that Taliban fighters in the province could use recent attacks as a pretext to commit abuses against perceived critics, including journalists and activists.

“The Taliban leadership has denied that revenge killings are taking place, but they have a history of such killings and a responsibility to stop their fighters from committing them,” Gossman said. “Country delegations meeting with the Taliban should press them to prevent their forces from committing further killings.” 

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