Mohammad Zafri says his memory is patchy after surviving relentless beatings by the Taliban.
But one event that’s hard to forget is being summoned last spring to the militant group’s headquarters to collect documents he had left behind, having been an employee of the previous, internationally-backed administration. Not wanting to cause trouble, he went – only to realize too late that it was a trap.
Zafri – whose real name CNN is withholding for security reasons – said he was outside the Taliban’s offices when he felt a sharp punch to the back of his head. He fell to the ground and was then dragged indoors, he recalled.
“There were about 12 Taliban members surrounding me, they tied me to a chair and started beating me from all sides,” Zafri told CNN.
The 36-year-old claimed he was then detained and tortured for nearly four months, after the Taliban accused him of conspiring against them by working with the National Resistance Front (NRF), a guerilla group waging war against the Taliban.
“They tried to choke and suffocate me by tying a plastic bag across my face, telling me to confess to working with the NRF,” he said. “But as I was never part of it, I didn’t confess … Then they hung me upside down, one time by my feet, another by my hands.”
He added: “I screamed so loud, I blacked out because of the trauma.”
Zafri – who remains in Afghanistan and spoke under the condition of anonymity – had tried unsuccessfully to leave the country when the Taliban seized control, fearing what might lie ahead. He now lives in hiding with his family.
Returning to their old playbook
At the time of their lightning takeover in August 2021, the Taliban were quick to present a new, reformed image, one that was relatively progressive, inclusive and restrained in comparison with their previous repressive rule, from 1996 to 2001.
One of the promises the group made was that it wouldn’t seek retribution against its political enemies. But this and other pledges have since been discarded, as the Taliban have mounted a sustained attack on women’s rights, persecuted minority groups and forcibly made ex-officials disappear, according to human rights groups – striking fear into the hearts of most Afghans.
In a move straight from the pages of their old playbook, in November the Taliban ordered judges to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law under which penalties for perceived offenses can include public executions, flogging and amputations, the kind of brutal corporal punishment that was a notorious feature of their past rule. Weeks later, the Islamist group carried out the country’s first known public execution since returning to power.
While no official figures are available, a report this year by the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, said authorities reportedly carried out floggings of more than 180 people between November 18, 2022 and January 15. According to the report, men, women and children were among the number accused of crimes including theft, illegitimate relationships or “violating codes of social behavior.”
The report, published on February 9, notes that the systematic violation of human rights of women and girls in the country has “deepened even further” since Bennett’s initial presentation of his findings and accuses the Taliban of using “fear and repressive policies” to suppress communities.
CNN approached other Afghans who had allegedly been victims of the Taliban’s regime, but they refused to speak on record due to fear of reprisals. With media restrictions within the country severely affecting journalists’ ability to hold power to account, the Taliban face no real accountability for their actions.
CNN has reached out to the Taliban for a response on the figures detailed in Bennett’s report and victims’ claims of detention, torture and being forced into silence, but has yet to receive a response.
Necessary to ‘reform society’
Despite the Taliban’s tight control on media outlets and people’s use of social media, videos still manage to surface online shedding light on life under their rule.
Afghan Witness, an independent human rights group which verifies information on current events in Afghanistan, told CNN that, while some cases of human rights abuses in the country have come to light, the true scale is likely much greater.
“Sometimes, the victims aren’t identified, sometimes the perpetrators aren’t identified. Overall the actual numbers are probably much higher,” said David Osborn, team leader of Afghan Witness.
In January, a video shot in Kandahar’s football stadium that showed men and women being publicly flogged in front of thousands of onlookers caused shockwaves when it was published online. The public punishment was approved by Afghanistan’s Supreme Court, which said nine “criminals” were being punished for theft and adultery.
The video in Kandahar was recorded on a mobile phone by an Afghan for whom CNN is using the pseudonym Sibghatullah, for safety reasons. He said about 5,000 people were there to witness the flogging and that, before it began, Taliban authorities said the punishment was necessary to “reform society.”
“I felt that those who were punished, they were ashamed [of what they did] that’s why they weren’t yelling whilst being punished … I wasn’t happy that they were punished publicly,” he said.
Sibghatullah added that he started recording so that as many people as possible could see what was happening, even though phones were prohibited and he himself risked punishment if caught.
“Countries around the world know how the Taliban are, because they still have relations with them, and the international community can see everything with their own eyes,” he said. “I only made this video for (ordinary) people to see (what was happening).”
Meanwhile, the safety and wellbeing of Afghan journalists is under increasing threat.
Since August 2021, there have been 245 registered cases of rights violations against the press, including 130 instances of detention, according to Bennett’s report. Many local journalists face harassment, attacks and detention, leaving them afraid to speak out or publish anything contradictory to the Taliban’s message.
It’s something Zabihullah Noori, who worked as a journalist for about eight years with Radio Takharistan, knows too well.
‘I thought I was going to die’
Noori told CNN he was with his family when up to 30 Taliban members stormed into his home in Taloqan city, northeastern Afghanistan, in December and beat Noori and his brothers. He said they hit them with rifles over reports he’d produced, which Noori said included an “anti-Taliban message” published before their return to power.
“Once I got to the intelligence department (Taliban offices), they started beating me with electric rods, whips, and tied a black plastic bag over my face trying to suffocate me,” Noori said.
“I tried to tell them I am a reporter and I report on all realities, whether that’s against the Taliban or on the previous government,” he continued. Noori said his reasons didn’t satisfy the Taliban members and they continued to say he was working with the “infidels” and “spreading propaganda.”
“They told me to call my mother, just so she could hear me scream; I thought I was going to die,” he said.
On the first night, Noori said, his captors tied his hands behind his back and hit his legs with a metal rod, which left him with extensive bruising. After hours of torture, the Taliban left him in a cell overnight, and tortured him again the next day, he added.
On the third day, the 27-year-old was released after community elders – whom the Taliban held in high regard – wrote a letter on behalf of his mother, seen by CNN, begging for his return.
After his release, Noori escaped with his family to Pakistan. He now lives under the shadow of fear, dreading what could happen if he is ever forced to return to Afghanistan or is tracked down where he’s sought refuge.
“I don’t feel safe here, the Taliban can do anything, even in Pakistan,” he said.
Many other Afghans have sought to flee the country since the Taliban reclaimed power, but not all of them have survived.
Among those to lose their lives while trying to start a new life is former Afghan female journalist and UN employee Torpekai Amarkhel, 42, who was one of more than 60 migrants who died after embarking on the perilous journey to Italy’s Calabria coast in February with her family. After her death, Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard tweeted “her drowning symbolizes the betrayal of a nation.”
Fereshta Abbasi, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told CNN that, since the Taliban’s comeback, a local journalist told her how bleak the media landscape is, threatening free speech.
“We had a huge number of media outlets in Afghanistan, we had a lot of newspapers, TV [programs, where] women were involved,” Abbasi said.
“Freedom of speech and media in Afghanistan was one of the country’s biggest achievements, which has now unfortunately gone.”
Meanwhile, Zafri remains stuck in Afghanistan despite repeated attempts to leave following his detention and torture by the Taliban. He said he has now lost hope in trying to leave even though he and his family are living in dire conditions.
He added, though, that if he did ever manage to reach safety, he would like to write a book about his time in prison.
“If I tell you all about the atrocities of the Taliban in prisons and the oppression of the prisoners that I witnessed with my own eyes, maybe no one will accept it or maybe they will say that I am crazy,” Zafri said.
Ehsan Popalzai contributed to this report.