Taliban arrest prominent activist for Afghan girls’ education

Taliban has not confirmed Matiullah Wesa’s arrest as UN demands his whereabouts be revealed

Shweta Sharma
Tuesday 28 March 2023 12:39 BST
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Video shows everyday things which are now illegal in Afghanistan under the Taliban

A prominent 30-year-old Afghan civil rights activist who championed education for girls has allegedly been arrested by the Taliban as the militant group’s government continued its crackdown on women’s education.

Matiullah Wesa was arrested in Afghanistan capital Kabul on Monday, said the UN Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) a day later.

Mr Wesa is the founder and president of Pen Path, a non-profit whose members travel across Afghanistan with a mobile school and library.

His brother Samiullah Wesa said he was picked up and beaten by some men outside a mosque after prayers in the evening.

“Matiullah had finished his prayers and came out of the mosque when he was stopped by some men in two vehicles,” Mr Samiullah told AFP.

“When Matiullah asked for their identity cards, they beat him and forcefully took him away.”

The Taliban have not confirmed Mr Wesa’s arrest.

“The Taliban came in two vehicles,” a person close to the family told the BBC. “Today at 10am, the Taliban went to his house and raided it. They turned it upside down, threatened his family against speaking out, seized phones, documents and computers. Matiullah’s brothers were briefly detained and then released with a warning,” they said.

Mr Wesa has been spearheading demands for girls’ education in Afghanistan and was awarded the Meer Bacha Khan medal, one of the country’s highest national civilian honours, by president Ashraf Ghani in 2018 for his campaign work.

He has remained outspoken in his demands for girls to have the right to go to school and learn despite threats after Taliban’s take over.

Speaking to The Independent in 2021, Mr Mesa had raised fears that he would be killed one day and revealed he and his family had been facing dire threats.

“One day I know I can be killed for my work. I have already lost my family’s wealth and business. That does not stop me from educating every child, even in the remotest corners of rural Afghanistan,” he said.

His last tweet was on early Monday morning in which he shared a video of women volunteers for Pen Path “asking for the Islamic rights to education for their daughters”.

UNAMA has urged authorities in Kabul to reveal Ms Wesa’s whereabouts and the reason for his arrest while ensuring his access to legal rights.

“UNAMA calls on the de facto authorities to clarify his whereabouts, the reasons for his arrest and to ensure his access to legal representation and contact with family,” the agency said.

Mr Wesa’s arrest has sparked outrage and fears not only among family members, but rights activists and observers across the world.

Richard Bennett, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Afghanistan, said he was alarmed by Mr Wesa’s detention. “His safety is paramount & all his legal rights must be respected,” Mr Bennett tweeted.

“Enemies of education, pen and enlightenment arrested @matiullahwesa founder of penpath who’s campaigning for the opening of girls’ schools tirelessly. We demand the immediate release of him!” said Zarifa Ghafari, Afghan activist and former mayor of Maidan Shahr city.

Pakistani education activist Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala Yousafzai’s father, said the news was shocking and described Mr Wesa as an “incredible champion of girls’ education”.

“His only crime is his decades old peaceful campaign for the right of girls’ education. Taliban must #ReleaseMatiullahWesa,” he tweeted.

Mr Wesa’s arrest seems to be the latest detention of activists in Afghanistan who are raising the issue of women’s rights after the Taliban barred teenage girls and women from receiving education.

The Taliban had arrested professor Ismail Mashal, an outspoken critic of the government’s ban on education of women, in February when he was handing out free books.

He was, however, released on 5 March and has avoided speaking out since then.

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