KABUL—The Taliban have arrested a Kabul university professor who gained national fame for berating a senior official on live television, a sign of the intensifying crackdown on critics of Afghanistan’s new regime.
Faizullah Jalal, a professor of political science and law at Kabul University, was arrested Saturday, weeks after he confronted a Taliban official in a debate on Afghanistan’s largest television network, Tolo. Lashing out at the Taliban’s extremist rule, he called
the spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha, a “terrorist” and a “calf,” an Afghan insult for people of low intelligence.
Taliban chief spokesman
confirmed the arrest of Mr. Jalal on
calling the professor a “fanatic” who used social media to incite people. Mr. Mujahed posted screenshots of a social-media account posting anti-Taliban messages in the professor’s name.
Mr. Jalal’s family members, who run his official Twitter account, said the account in the screenshots was fake. Mr. Jalal’s daughter, Hasina, told The Wall Journal that the family hadn’t been able to contact the professor since Saturday afternoon local time.
In the weeks after seizing power in August, the Taliban repeatedly said that they supported free media and mostly refrained from jailing critics, even as scores of former government officials and security force members were gunned down, often by unknown assailants.
Now, as the Taliban regime lacks international recognition, and an economic meltdown fuels discontent at home, the gloves are coming off. All over the country, Afghans who dare to voice criticism via social media or in person are being arrested or even killed, human-rights groups and eyewitnesses say.
Taliban intelligence officers are trawling social media for critical content, detaining people who dare to speak up. Most intellectuals in the cities have gone quiet. Many journalists who in the early days of the Taliban regime reported on protests, particularly by women, have fled the country.
The Taliban’s intolerance of critics shouldn’t come as a surprise, given their record in areas that were under their control during the past decade or more, said Shaharzad Akbad, former chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in the toppled Afghan republic.
“Wherever they had control, there was no one to speak against them,” Ms. Akbar said. Even religious clerics who opposed the Taliban in their areas were silenced. “My fear is that this will get worse,” she said.
Taliban spokespeople didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Jalal feared that he would be targeted after the TV appearance. In an interview with The Journal in December, the 59-year old scholar said that after the show aired some Taliban officials had warned him that his life might be in danger from lower-ranking members whom the leadership couldn’t control.
After that, Mr. Jalal left his apartment only briefly on occasion to exercise to help his slipped disk, wearing a surgical mask to cover his face, he said. His neighbors, who all watched the television appearance, said they couldn’t believe he was still alive.
“There is an air of fear and terror,” Mr. Jalal said in the interview.
“Some claim that we have security now,” he added, referring to those who say the Taliban takeover ended the war. “What does this security mean? In a place where no laws are enforced, is there security? In a place where there is no freedom of speech, is there security?”
The Taliban have imposed new restrictions on Afghans, especially women, who are largely banned from working and traveling long distances without a male relative, making it harder for them to organize protests as they did in the early days of the regime. In most provinces, teenage girls are barred from school.
The attempts to silence critics, including for relatively mild statements on social media, are particularly chilling outside Kabul, far away from international media scrutiny.
One man in his 20s was arrested in the western province of Farah after he demanded in a
post that the Taliban use the taxes they collect to pay public servants’ salaries. The man said he feared for his life when he was in prison.
“When I was arrested, I told my wife, if I’m not back in two hours, call your father,” the man said. After 24 hours in a small cell with two robbers, during which he said he was verbally threatened, he was released. The stint in prison drained him of any appetite for rebellion he may have had.
“I don’t go to places where the Taliban are. They may confiscate my phone, and I have a lot in my phone that can be dangerous: emails, messages in WhatsApp,” he said. After his detention, he unfriended everyone on Facebook who he suspected might be even a little sympathetic to the Taliban, assuming that one of his social media friends had reported his original post.
“I’m not going to say anything about the Taliban now, that’s for sure,” the man said.
The Taliban efforts to suppress dissent are partly the result of growing desperation among Afghans suffering under a deep economic and humanitarian crisis, which the United Nations warns will push nearly nine million people—almost one-fourth of the population—to the brink of famine this winter.
Some have suffered worse fates than Mr. Jalal. In late November, Naveed Khan, 31, who owned a food stall in the southern Afghan city of Lashkar Gah, published a post on Facebook criticizing the new Taliban government for not paying teachers’ salaries.
Four days later, a white Toyota Fielder pulled up outside Mr. Khan’s stall in a park. A group of Taliban members confiscated his phone, beat him and took him away in the car, Mr. Khan’s brother, Sharifullah Sharafat, recalled.
After Mr. Sharafat and his father pleaded with the Taliban for two days to release him, Mr. Khan’s dead body washed up on the banks of the Helmand River bearing marks of torture: a broken nose, a ruptured eye and bruises seemingly from beatings all over his body.
The family carried Mr. Khan’s body to the compound of the provincial Taliban governor in protest. Some 300 relatives and other citizens of Lashkar Gah joined them, Mr. Sharafat said.
“The Taliban assured us that they will punish my brother’s killers,” Mr. Sharafat said, but although the Taliban detained four people in connection with the murder, no one has been punished yet. Instead, Mr. Sharafat said, he has received threats on social media from Taliban sympathizers for making the incident public.
Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at email@example.com
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