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Afghanistan: Foreign Minister Interviewed About Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Upcoming London Conference

Foreign Minister Abdullah (file photo) (AFP) This phone interview with Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul was conducted by RFE/RL's Afghan Service correspondent Zarif Nazar from Prague on 21 January. Abdullah discussed the most recent videotaped message from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the current state of the Taliban, terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, and the upcoming London conference on the Afghanistan Compact.


RFE/RL: What are your views concerning Osama bin Laden's recent comments made on audiotape?


Abdullah Abdullah: Osama Bin Laden is the murderer of Afghan people and hundreds of other Muslims around the world. He has betrayed Muslims of the world greatly. Now that he is putting himself in the position of defending Afghan Muslims and Muslims in Iraq, it is strange. While in the case of Afghanistan he has been the cause of the wretchedness. And, before there were any foreign forces in Afghanistan, Osama and his followers caused the death of thousands of people and forcing them into exile. Now that he declares his position as defender of Muslims, especially of Afghanistan, I find it strange. But he must be found, and must be punished, he and his followers who have been with him in all the crimes all this time.

"We hope we can come to the point that criminals will not be permitted to come and cause insecurity in Afghanistan from any of the neighboring countries."

RFE/RL: Do you have a specific view about Osama's proposal to the United States [asking for a cease-fire]?

Abdullah: The United States has given its answer to that. But for Afghanistan, as a victim country of his and his followers' terrorist activities, the only thing Afghan people expect is that he would be punished.

RFE/RL: What is your comment about the recent Taliban claim of not having played a role in the Spin Boldak suicide attack?

Abdullah: I think those Taliban who are in war, and those foreigners with them, are the cause of all this and part of this crime. Those who have made the decision to destroy Afghanistan have committed different crimes in different parts of Afghanistan during the last four years, including the recent crime. Why do they deny it? In the past, also, in some cases they have claimed responsibility and in others they have not. In this recent case, since the causalities were all civilian, the Taliban didn't want to take the blame.

RFE/RL: What about the issue of Pakistan and other neighboring countries? Do they cooperate with you about preventing cross-border entry?

Abdullah: The crossing of people from Pakistan to Afghanistan and the carrying out of terrorist attacks has continued. This indicates that the problem continues to exist. There have been contacts, and relations have been strengthened. But there are still problems. We hope we can come to the point that criminals will not be permitted to come and cause insecurity in Afghanistan from any of the neighboring countries.

RFE/RL: About the upcoming London conference: what preparation has the Afghan government made and what issues will be discussed?

Abdullah: The conference, which will be held in London, will be about an Afghan [plan or proposal] which is a mutual commitment by Afghanistan and international society for continuing efforts for stability and security in Afghanistan, the strengthening of the state, and its economic and social development. We are hoping that more than 60 countries and international organizations will take part in this conference. From Afghanistan a delegation headed by President Hamid Karzai will attend. In fact, after the Bonn and Tokyo conferences, this is the most important event with relation to international aid to Afghanistan and the position of Afghanistan with regard to issues relating to Afghanistan and international society. In fact, we expect a five-year framework of cooperation to be endorsed by the participating countries.

RFE/RL: Now that your government has accomplished the Bonn conference terms and conditions, it has been said that the government wants to directly implement the aid as opposed to letting the NGOs [implement it]. Do you have any specific proposals on this?

Abdullah: Yes. Our specific proposal for the international community is that Afghanistan's role in implementing and the ownership of the aid should be increasingly greater. At the beginning all aid was implemented through NGOs. This has changed today and we hope we can get this commitment from the international community that -- considering the positive efforts the government has made -- there would be substantial change in the role and ownership of the government in terms of international aid. In the document that will be presented to the conference, there is a section about ways of ensuring the effectiveness of the aid. If supported by the participants, there will be commitment in moving in this direction.

RFE/RL: We have heard that Karzai will be visiting Demark. Could you tell us about the purpose of this visit and whether you will accompany him?

Abdullah: Before that, Mr. President Karzai will attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and he will be giving speeches in different sessions there. I will be traveling with him and later he will visit Denmark, one of the Scandinavian countries -- all of which have been assisting in Afghanistan's reconstruction process. Denmark is the only country that, despite invitations to visit, Karzai has not been able to go to. Before the London conference Karzai will have a one-day official visit to Denmark.

Islam In A Pluralistic World

Islam In A Pluralistic World

A Muslim woman (left) watches a Christian procession in Madrid in March (AFP)

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CONFERENCE ON ISLAM: A major international conference on Islam concluded in Vienna in November 2005 with strong appeals from prominent Muslim leaders to recognize international terrorism as simply "terrorism." Political figures from Islamic countries, including the presidents of Iraq and Afghanistan, argued that it should never be labeled "Islamic" or "Muslim" terrorism because Islam is based on peace, dialogue, and tolerance. "Salaam" -- meaning "peace" -- was the key word of the three-day conference, titled "ISLAM IN A PLURALISTIC WORLD."
Iraqi President Jalal Talibani and Afghan President Hamid Karzai used the word in their remarks to emphasize the peaceful nature of Islam. Other speakers quoted passages from the Koran to the effect that all men and women, regardless of faith, are creatures of God and should live in peace with each other without discrimination...(more)



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Listen to Afghan President HAMID KARZAI's complete address to the Vienna conference (in English):
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Listen to UN special envoy LAKHDAR BRAHIMI's complete address to the Vienna conference (in English):
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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view a thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.

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The Push To Recognize 'Gender Apartheid' As A Crime

Afghan women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group in Kabul.
Afghan women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group in Kabul.

The world has long been aware of the scourge of apartheid -- the systemic segregation or discrimination of people based on their race. But what about the institutionalized practice of singling people out for ill-treatment due to their gender?

The push to recognize "gender apartheid" under international law is gaining steam, with oppression against women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran fueling calls for immediate action, but tremendous obstacles remain.

What Do They Want?

Advocates want to clearly define gender apartheid as a crime under international law. Currently, only "persecution" on the basis of gender is recognized as a crime against humanity. But rights groups and activists say the concept of persecution does not fully capture the scope of the abuses committed under a system of institutionalized gender apartheid.

The goal is for the United Nations to make up for this gap by legally shielding women and girls from systemic abuse and violence.

Afghan women's rights defenders are credited with being the first to articulate the concept of gender apartheid in the 1990s, during the Taliban's first regime.

Since the Taliban returned to power in 2021, the hard-line Islamist group has reimposed its oppressive policies against women and girls, including severe restrictions on their appearances, freedom of movement, and right to work and study.

Hoda Khamosh, an Afghan women's rights activist, says the recognition of gender apartheid would greatly benefit women's rights in the country.

"We would be able to hold accountable the authorities and perpetrators of gender-based violence and discrimination against women," Khamosh told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.

Meanwhile, Iranian women’s rights activists have said the institutionalized discrimination against women in the Islamic republic amounts to gender apartheid.

UN experts have said the violent enforcement of the hijab law and punishments on women and girls who fail to wear the head scarf could be described as a form of gender apartheid.

Security forces in Iran warn women to wear their hijab properly.
Security forces in Iran warn women to wear their hijab properly.

When Do They Want It?

Today. The United Nations has been considering the adoption of a major treaty that would unite signatories against crimes against humanity.

Dozens of rights groups and hundreds of individuals signed a statement in March calling for gender apartheid to be included on the draft list of such crimes.

The hope is that the UN General Assembly will adopt procedures to begin negotiations on the treaty when it next meets in September.

Tough Going

While the concept of gender apartheid has increasingly been used by the United Nations and international organizations, particularly in connection with abuses against women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran, there have also been missed opportunities.

During UN-hosted talks in Doha with the Taliban in early July, for example, women did not have a seat at the table.

Where Are The Women? All-Male UN Talks With Taliban Spark Controversy
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Rights activists calling for the recognition of gender apartheid and for sanctions to be imposed on those responsible accused the UN of giving legitimacy to the Taliban's rule and of betraying its commitment to women's rights.

"The international community has a moral obligation to ensure the protection of Afghan women’s rights and uphold the principles of justice and equality in any engagement with the Taliban," Sima Samar, former chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), told CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations.

Imprisonment And Death In Iran

Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran's clerical regime has been labeled a "gender apartheid regime" by rights watchdogs.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights activist who lives in exile, is among the key signatories of a global effort to End Gender Apartheid Today.

The movement, highlighting the international community's successful effort to end apartheid in South Africa decades ago, noted that women in Iran are banned from many fields of study, sporting events, and from obtaining a passport or traveling outside the country without their husband's consent.

The Iranian authorities' goal is to maintain women's subjugation to men and the state through a system of laws, the movement said. Violations can lead to "violence, imprisonment, and death."

"The situations in the Islamic Republic of Iran and under the Taliban in Afghanistan are not simply cases of gender discrimination," the movement concluded in its call for support.

"Rather, these systems are perpetuating a more extreme, systematic, and structural war against women designed to dehumanize and repress them for purposes of entrenching power.”


Written by Michael Scollon with reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

44,000 Afghans In Pakistan Still Awaiting U.S., Foreign Resettlement

Afghan refugees arrive from Pakistan at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in December 2023.
Afghan refugees arrive from Pakistan at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in December 2023.

At least 44,000 Afghans approved for relocation to Western countries following the Taliban's return to power are still waiting in limbo in Pakistan, Islamabad said on July 11. In the days after the NATO-backed government collapsed in August 2021, more than 120,000 people, mostly Afghans, were airlifted from Kabul in a chaotic evacuation. Hundreds of thousands more Afghans have fled Taliban rule since then, with many promised new lives in the nations involved in their country's 20-year occupation. Pakistan’s Foreign Office said that 25,000 Afghans approved for relocation to the United States are still living in Pakistan.

Iranian Film Casts Real Refugees To Show Plight Of Displaced Afghans

Iranian Film Casts Real Refugees To Show Plight Of Displaced Afghans
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An Iranian writing-directing duo has filmed the story of millions of Afghans living for decades in Iran without fundamental rights. Alireza Ghasemi and Raha Amirfazli cast real Afghan refugees as their characters, secretly shooting in locations where their cast cannot legally go. In the Land Of Brothers screened at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in July, shedding light on a population of permanent refugees that began streaming into Iran in the 1980s during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Many are still eking out a living, taking on unofficial manual labor jobs while facing constant discrimination.

UN Refugee Chief Welcomes Pakistan Suspending Expulsions Of Undocumented Afghans

Pakistan Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif (right) meets UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi on July 9 in Islamabad.
Pakistan Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif (right) meets UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi on July 9 in Islamabad.

The UN's high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, has commended Pakistan for suspending its forced deportation of undocumented Afghan migrants and called for increased efforts toward long-term solutions for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said.

Grandi expressed appreciation that the Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan had been suspended and sought assurances that it would "remain on hold," the UNHCR said in a statement on July 9.

Islamabad suspended the deportation of Afghan refugees following talks between Grandi and top Pakistani officials during the former's three-day visit to Pakistan.

Grandi met with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Foreign Minister Mohammad Ishaq Dar, and Minister for States and Frontier Regions Amir Muqam, along with senior officials from the ministries of the interior and foreign affairs.

The commissioner called for a permanent solution to the problem of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the statement said, adding that he also called for "the timely extension of the Proof of Registration (PoR) cards."

PoR cards are a crucial identity document for the more than 1.3 million legal Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The number of undocumented Afghans who sought refuge in neighboring Pakistan rose steeply following the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan in August 2022 following the departure of the U.S.-led international forces.

There is no accurate figure for the total number of Afghans in Pakistan, but UN estimates put the number in October last year at nearly 3.7 million. Pakistani authorities, however, put the number at 4.4 million.

Last year, Pakistan's interim government decided to deport 1.7 million undocumented Afghan refugees from the country and send them back to Afghanistan.

Since the decision in November last year, an estimated 500,000 Afghan refugees have been returned to Afghanistan.

“We need to seize this opportunity to accelerate solutions and have a bigger, broader vision for the Afghan people in Pakistan,” Grandi was quoted as saying in the statement.

Taliban Authorities Slash Government Salaries Of Afghan Women

The Taliban has severely curtailed women’s rights since seizing power in Afghanistan in 2021. (file photo)
The Taliban has severely curtailed women’s rights since seizing power in Afghanistan in 2021. (file photo)

Afghan authorities have slashed the salaries of women government workers who have been forced to stay at home since the Taliban seized power, the Taliban-led government's Finance Ministry said on July 8. After kicking out the foreign-backed government in 2021, the Taliban administration stopped most women employed in the public sector from attending their offices while continuing to pay them. "Women who are at home and do not go to the office... their salaries are 5,000 afghanis ($70) a month," Ahmad Wali Haqmal, the ministry spokesman, told AFP. Women who are permitted to work in segregated areas such as in government hospitals or schools would continue to get paid a salary according to their position.

France's Afghan Community 'Extremely Happy' As Far Right Denied Majority

France's Afghan Community 'Extremely Happy' As Far Right Denied Majority
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France’s far-right National Rally party failed to secure a majority in parliamentary elections on July 7 after being relegated to third place behind centrists and a left-wing alliance. Some in France's Afghan community expressed relief that the National Rally won't be in power to implement its anti-immigration platform that could have limited family reunions for refugees. A hung parliament could mean lots of political uncertainty ahead, but without a far-right majority President Emmanuel Macron is expected to be able to maintain France's support for Ukraine.

UNHCR Chief Meets With Afghan Refugees In Pakistan

An Afghan refugee family in Peshawar, Pakistan (file photo)
An Afghan refugee family in Peshawar, Pakistan (file photo)

The United Nations' high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, who is on a three-day visit to Pakistan, met with Afghan refugees in Pakistan’s northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on July 7. Grandi listened to the refugees’ concerns and assured them of the support of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Qaisar Afridi, the UNHCR spokesperson in Peshawar, told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. Grandi will meet Pakistan government officials and other humanitarian and development partners. Grandi's visit comes as Pakistan continues to deport unregistered Afghan refugees. According to the UNHCR, Pakistan hosts approximately 3.2 million Afghan refugees, 76 percent of whom are women and children. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, click here.

Residents Protest Planned Military Offensive In Pakistan's Swat Valley, Orakzai District

Residents of Pakistan's Swat Valley protest against a planned operation by the nation's military.
Residents of Pakistan's Swat Valley protest against a planned operation by the nation's military.

Hundreds of residents in Pakistan’s Swat Valley and Orakzai tribal district rallied to condemn a newly announced military operation by the federal government, with one movement calling for a nationwide protest on July 7.

The Ulasi Pasoon (Public Revolution) and Orkazai Peace Movement organized the protests on July 5 in which political workers, rights activists, and students carried placards demanding peace and security in their areas and denouncing the planned military operation.

Residents have long opposed the national government's military operations in the region, claiming they have driven millions of people from their homes and disrupted businesses and other activities of ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Pakistani Protesters Fear Impact Of Military Operations
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They have also protested the lack of overall security provided by the national authorities.

The protesters in Swat and Orakzai demanded peace and asked the military forces to target the terrorists’ hideouts rather than conducting operations in civilian areas.

Pakistan’s top leadership on June 22 approved plans for the Resolve For Stability military operation designed to combat escalating extremist violence and terrorist attacks in the region. The operation has not yet started.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a remote northwestern province near the Afghan border, has seen an increase in deadly attacks in the past two years, mostly blamed on Islamist extremist groups, including Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan and affiliates of Islamic State.

Islamabad has accused neighboring Afghanistan of providing safe havens for the groups operating in Pakistan, something Kabul has denied.

Pakistani security forces have said they have been conducting targeted operations against militants in several parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Citing the effects of previous military operations, local residents and political activists in several districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa launched the protest rallies and other actions after plans for Resolve For Security were announced by the government in Islamabad.

The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) rights group has announced plans for countrywide protests against new military operations on July 7.

The office of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had stated that the new operation would not be a full-scale military campaign displacing a large number of people like the previous operations.

The Pakistani military on July 5 said in a statement that the new operation is aimed at “harnessing the national counterterrorism efforts in a synchronized manner to dismantle the nexus of terrorism and illegal spectrum in the country for enduring stability and economic prosperity.”

Taliban Says Restrictions On Women Stand, Praises UN 'Spirit Of Cooperation'

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid (file photo)
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid (file photo)

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at a July 3 press conference in Kabul that the Taliban will not remove restrictions on women and women’s education in Afghanistan. The announcement comes at the end of UN-sponsored talks in Doha, the first that Taliban representatives have attended since the annual discussions began in 2021. The talks held this time were condemned by human rights organizations for the UN’s decision to exclude women and civil society representatives to encourage the Taliban’s participation. While the UN does not recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government, Mujahid praised the “spirit of cooperation” and “atmosphere of trust” at the conference. To read the original story on RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.

Updated

Xi, Putin Kick Off SCO Summit In Kazakhstan With Belarus Set To Join

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) welcomes Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Astana on July 2 for a state visit and two-day SCO summit.
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) welcomes Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Astana on July 2 for a state visit and two-day SCO summit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met on July 3 in Kazakhstan as part of a two-day summit for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is poised to admit Belarus as a member.

The expected expansion of the club of Eurasian countries is part of another push from Beijing and Moscow to use the regional security bloc as a counterweight to promote alternatives to the Western institutions that make up the U.S.-led world order.

Putin told Xi ahead of their bilateral meeting that Russia's ties with China were stronger than ever and touted the SCO as a powerful instrument to advance their foreign policy agendas.

"Russian-Chinese relations, our comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation, are experiencing their best period in history," Putin said in comments broadcast on Russian state TV. He hailed the SCO for "strengthening its role as one of the key pillars of a fair multipolar world order."

Moscow and Beijing have deepened their political, military and economic links since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

In his opening remarks, Xi told Putin that China and Russia should "uphold the original aspiration of friendship for generations" in response to an "ever-changing international situation."

Calling Putin an "old friend," Xi alluded to the progress the two countries had made in putting in place "plans and arrangements for the next development of bilateral relations."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also met with Putin at the SCO, offering to help end the Ukraine-Russia war. Erdogan said he believed a fair peace suiting both sides was possible, according to the Turkish presidency. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Erdogan could not play the role of an intermediary.

"No, it's not possible," Peskov said when asked whether Erdogan could assume such a role, according to TASS. There was no explanation for why the Kremlin was opposed to Erdogan's participation.

The SCO summit, which ends of July 4, was also set to focus on better coordination for counterterrorism in the region, which remains high on the agenda for members following Moscow's Crocus City Hall attack in April. The security situation in Afghanistan and a new mechanism for an investment fund proposed by Kazakhstan will also be discussed by leaders.

"The mandate for the SCO can be quite vague and far-reaching," Eva Seiwert, an analyst at the Berlin-based MERICS think tank, told RFE/RL. "Officially speaking, this is a security organization that focuses on improving collaboration among its member states and building mutual trust throughout the region."

The bloc was founded in 2001 with China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan as members with a focus on settling territorial disputes and has grown to tackle issues like regional security and economic development. The SCO added India and Pakistan in 2017, Iran in 2023, and is set to grow again with the addition of Belarus this year.

The SCO's evolution over its 23-year history has largely been shaped by China and Russia's evolving relationship.

At times, Moscow has looked to water down or block Chinese-led plans for the bloc, including proposals for a regional development bank and a free-trade zone. But as Xi and Putin have built stronger ties between their countries in recent years -- especially since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine -- the two leaders have more actively made the SCO a part of their broader cooperation together and a centerpiece of their shared anti-U.S. worldview.

"For a long time, China wanted to make sure that the SCO is not portrayed as an anti-Western organization, but this has changed, especially since Iran joined," Seiwert said. "It's becoming clear that the SCO doesn't care so much about what the West thinks anymore."

At a meeting of senior Russian officials in June, Putin spoke about the creation of "a new system of bilateral and multilateral guarantees of collective security in Eurasia," with the help of existing organizations like the SCO, to work toward gradually "phasing out the military presence of external powers in the Eurasian region."

Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, told RFE/RL that while the SCO is increasing its international visibility and geopolitical weight, it still remains an organization that is heavy on symbolism but light on substance.

"It's still trying to figure out what it is now and what it can be," he said. "At the end of the day, its main advantage is just the sheer size and its collective GDP, but there are still almost no substantial results."

In the absence of a clear mandate, the SCO is largely serving as a diplomatic forum for regional leaders to get sought-after face time with Xi and Putin.

Leaders and representatives from nonmember states like Azerbaijan, Qatar, Mongolia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkmenistan, and Turkey are also expected to attend, as is United Nation Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Notably absent from this year's summit is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar attending in his place.

Niva Yau, a fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub, says that India appears to be losing interest in the SCO, in part due to New Delhi's tense rivalry with Pakistan, but also over ongoing tensions with China amid a multiyear border dispute.

She says that this growing reticence from India may hamstring the bloc's potential and Beijing's future plans for it.

"It reduces the SCO's global profile and limits some of China's bigger plans," she told RFE/RL.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Where Are The Women? All-Male UN Talks With Taliban Spark Controversy

Where Are The Women? All-Male UN Talks With Taliban Spark Controversy
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Women's rights were not on the agenda and women were excluded, as members of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban took part in UN-organized international talks in Doha on June 30-July 1, prompting criticism from human rights groups.

Updated

Afghan Talks Kick Off In Doha Amid Anger Over Taliban’s Exclusion Of Women

Afghan activists staged a recent protest in Pakistan over the terms of the Doha meeting, including the apparent exclusion of women's issues.
Afghan activists staged a recent protest in Pakistan over the terms of the Doha meeting, including the apparent exclusion of women's issues.

Two days of UN-organized talks on international relations with Taliban-led Afghanistan were getting under way in the Qatari capital, Doha, on June 30, with the Taliban present for the first time -- but rights groups expressed anger over the hard-line fundamentalist regime’s exclusion of women and its refusal to discuss women's rights at the forum.

"The Taliban had a major role in creating the agenda of this meeting and who should be in this meeting,” Shahrazad Akbar, the former head of the Independent Human Rights Commission and currently executive director of the Rawadari rights organization, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, speaking from Britain.

“This in itself is a big problem and is giving power and legitimacy to the Taliban," she said.

Habiba Sarabi, a prominent women’s rights activist and former member of the negotiating team of the deposed Afghan government, echoed those remarks, saying, “Afghan women are half of Afghan society.”

“How can we say that women are not present in important decision-making meetings. When it is specifically related to Afghanistan, women should be present and women should also participate in those decisions,” she told Radio Azadi.

This is the third such UN-sponsored meeting on Afghanistan in Doha, but the first in which the Taliban has been involved. Along with UN officials, delegations from some two dozen nations, including the United States, are expected to attend.

The Taliban was not invited to the first Doha conference and set conditions that were rejected for its participation in the second gathering in February, including that it be the sole representative of Afghanistan at the meeting.

UN chief Antonio Guterres said the group’s demands were “unacceptable” and amounted to recognizing the Taliban as the country’s legitimate government, something the international community has refused to do.

Afghan women’s rights groups and supporters have held protests inside Afghanistan and in Europe over the Taliban’s participation and its exclusion of women at the gathering.

Zahid Mustafa, who has organized a protest in Amsterdam, told Radio Azadi that "our goal by these protests is that the United Nations has invited the Taliban to this meeting on behalf of Afghans. But we are protesting this and calling for a boycott of the Doha meeting."

Shukriya Barakzai, a women's rights activist and Afghanistan's former ambassador to Norway -- who was invited to the previous meeting -- expressed frustration with the UN organizers of the summit.

"The United Nations’ looking down upon Afghan women and representatives of civil society shows that, despite the fact that this meeting was organized by the United Nations, they are acting against their own procedures and values," she told Radio Azadi from London.

She did not say if she was invited to the current gathering in Doha.

Roza Otunbaeva, the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), has defended the failure to include Afghan women at the meeting, saying that women’s rights are certain to be raised with the Taliban. She said the group's inclusion in the talks does not represent a legitimization of its government.

The Taliban government, which took over after the U.S.-led international coalition left the country in mid-2020, is not recognized internationally, although Beijing has accepted credentials from a Taliban ambassador.

The United Nations has accused the Taliban of waging "gender apartheid" on women and girls since returning to power nearly three years ago, closing girls' schools and forcing women out of the workplace and out of public spaces.

Women's rights groups and civil society activists are expected to meet with international diplomats and UN officials on July 2, after the close of the official two-day talks.

But Sima Samar, the former head of Afghanistan’s human rights commission of the deposed Afghan government, said that was not sufficient action by the international community.

“They [the UN] have said they will meet the [Afghan] women on the sidelines after the end of the meeting on July 2,” she told Radio Azadi.

“If they care about women, why don't they meet with women before that, or why aren't women directly at the table, because the Taliban's desire is to erase women from all social and political issues in Afghanistan.”

The Azadi Briefing: Taliban Continues To Stamp Out Religious Freedoms

Sikh Afghans perform a religious celebration in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
Sikh Afghans perform a religious celebration in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.

I'm Abubakar Siddique, senior correspondent at RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.

The Key Issue

A new report by the U.S. State Department says religious freedoms continue to deteriorate under harsh Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

Published on July 26, the report details the dwindling religious freedoms for both Muslim and non-Muslim religious minorities in the country of 40 million.

"Fear of violence, persecution, and societal discrimination had prompted members of religious minorities to refrain from publicly expressing their faith," the report said.

Shi'ite Muslims, the country's largest religious minority, accuse the Sunni Taliban of abuses including "killing, torture, and forced displacement." Most Shi'a in Afghanistan are members of the historically persecuted Hazara ethnic minority.

Taliban's jihadist rival, the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), has targeted Shi'ite communities in devastating terrorist attacks.

The Taliban, meanwhile, has brutalized Afghanistan's tiny Salafist community for alleged links to IS-K.

Other religious minorities, including "Christians, Ahmadis, Baha'is, Hindus, and Sikhs," have left or are seeking to leave the country out of fear of persecution, according to the report. Those who remain are withdrawing from public expressions of their faith, "with most in hiding or opting to leave the country."

While most Afghans are Sunni Muslims who follow the Hanafi school, an estimated 15 percent of its population are Shi'a. Small communities of Hindus, Sikhs, and other non-Muslim religions continue to live in the country.

Why It's Important: The Taliban's avowed aim to impose its interpretation of Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence has marginalized religious minorities.

In the absence of a constitution and comprehensive legal framework, decrees by Taliban leaders are vulnerable to individual interpretation, opening new avenues for abuse and denial of rights.

In practice, this translates into severe and growing restrictions on the practice of any beliefs the Taliban disapproves of.

Last month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said the Taliban's policies are "violating freedom of religion or belief for all Afghans holding a different interpretation of Islam and for members of religious minority groups."

The watchdog recommended extending "protections for freedom of religion or belief into all potential dialogue with the Taliban."

It argued in favor of targeted sanctions on Taliban leaders responsible for "severe violations of religious freedom."

What's Next: Last December, the State Department redesignated the Taliban as an "entity of particular concern" owing to grave violations of religious freedoms.

The hard-line Taliban government is unlikely to shed the designation, as it shows no signs of changing its policies in response to international pressure.

What To Keep An Eye On

Afghanistan's historic run in the ongoing T20 Cricket World Cup ended with a defeat to South Africa in the semifinal.

However, the thrashing the national side suffered on June 27 did not prevent Afghans from celebrating a remarkable sporting achievement.

"We are proud that our team made it to the semifinals," Hashmat Ahmadzai, a resident of the southeastern Khost Province, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "Our team demonstrated that they could defeat anyone."

In the northern province of Parwan, another fan, Ahmad Zahid, said their team gained more support for the sensational sport after defeating leading teams such as Australia and New Zealand.

Afghans adopted cricket while living in exile in neighboring Pakistan. Over the past two decades the Afghan national side made remarkable progress, rising from underdogs to one of the most talented sides in cricket today.

Why It's Important: The Taliban has so far tolerated cricket as its government stays away from micromanaging the team, which plays under the banner of the fallen republic.

The game has offered passion, entertainment, and united Afghans at a time when the Taliban's extremist policies deny them fundamental freedoms and rights.

That's all from me for now.

Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have. You can always reach us at azadi.english@rferl.org

Until next time,

Abubakar Siddique

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every Friday.

Updated

Biden Criticized For Debate Performance, With Russia-Ukraine War A Hot Topic

U.S. President Joe Biden (right) and former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participate in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections at CNN's studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27.
U.S. President Joe Biden (right) and former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participate in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections at CNN's studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27.

U.S. President Joe Biden and his Republican rival, Donald Trump, clashed over foreign policy and Russia’s war against Ukraine in a televised debate between the two oldest candidates ever to seek the U.S. presidency.

After taking the debate stage on June 27 without shaking hands and with no audience in the hall, the current president and his predecessor laid out starkly differing views on Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbor in February 2022.

But it was Biden’s performance, his words delivered with a raspy voice and often haltingly, that overshadowed the topics being discussed and raised concerns over the 81-year-old's ability to lead the country for another four years.

Trump, who in the past has called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tactics in the 2022 invasion of Ukraine "genius" and "very savvy," attacked Biden saying that if the United States had a "real president," Putin would not have attacked Ukraine.

"He knew not to play games with me," Trump said referring to Putin.

Biden, 81, countered by calling Putin a "war criminal" and warning that if Russia is allowed to succeed in its war, Putin would not stop at Kyiv.

"He's killed thousands and thousands of people," said Biden, who several times appeared to lose his train of thought while delivering responses.

Biden, Trump Debate U.S. Future In NATO
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Since the beginning of the war, the Biden administration has staunchly backed Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

The United States has been the largest single contributor of military and financial aid to Kyiv during the conflict, though the most recently approved package of aid totaling $61 billion was delayed for some six months as Republican lawmakers held up the process demanding deep changes to border policy in exchange for their support.

The aid package was eventually approved though no deal on the border was reached.

Biden noted in the debate -- which was dominated by domestic policy issues such as the economy, immigration, and abortion -- that while Washington has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine, he has rallied leaders from more than 50 countries around the world in a coalition to help Ukraine repel Russian troops.

What Happens With NATO And Ukraine If Trump Is Reelected In November?
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"This is a guy who wants to pull out of NATO," Biden, who at times appeared halting and unfocused in his responses, said of Trump.

Earlier this month, Putin said Russia would end the war in Ukraine only if Kyiv met conditions including renouncing its NATO ambitions and ceding four partially occupied regions that Russia claims in their entirety, as well as Crimea. Ukraine dismissed the conditions as absurd and said they amounted to capitulation.

When asked about Putin’s remarks, Trump, 78, said the conditions laid out by the Russian leader “are not acceptable.”

Biden, Trump Clash Over Afghanistan, Russia's War In Ukraine In TV Debate
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But Trump, who voiced a litany of falsehoods during the 90-minute debate, also called Zelenskiy the "greatest salesman ever" for the Ukrainian leader’s military aid requests.

"Look, this is a war that never should have started if we had a leader," Trump said, claiming again he would be able to "settle" the war if re-elected in November.

He gave no details of how he would achieve such a result.

The Kremlin said it had no comment on the debate or the comments made during it.

“I don’t think you expect the president of Russia might set an alarm clock, wake up before morning, and watch the debates in the United States of America?" Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow when asked if Putin, who has said previously he has no preference for either candidate, had watched the debate.

Concerns Over Age

Biden’s at times stumbling performance in the debate underscored concerns about his age and whether, at 81, he is too old to serve another four-year term, and prompted questions among some Democrats over whether he should step aside as their party’s nominee.

At one point, Biden seemed to confuse Trump with Putin; at another point, in a section on immigration and border security, he gave a meandering answer, prompting Trump to counter: "I really don't know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don't think he knows what he said."

Biden "did get stronger as the debate went on but by that time, I think the panic had set in," David Axelrod, an adviser to former President Barack Obama, said on CNN. "There are going to be discussions about whether he should continue."

Speaking to supporters afterward, Biden appeared much more energetic as he kept up his attacks on Trump.

"I can't think of one thing he said out there that was true," said Biden, whose advisers said was suffering from a cold.

Elsewhere in the debate, Trump also slammed Biden for failing to gain the release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been in Russian detention for more than a year on espionage charges that he, his employer, and the U.S. government have rejected as politically motivated.

The former president said Biden should have had Gershkovich, whose trial began on June 26 and is being held behind closed doors, "out a long time ago" and that Putin is "probably asking for billions and billions of dollars" for the reporter’s release.

Trump Asked If He Will Accept U.S. Election Results
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Trump didn’t elaborate or substantiate his assertion, but it appeared to be a reference to a 2023 deal that saw the release of five detained Americans in Iran in exchange for the transfer of billions of dollars worth of frozen Iranian assets from banks in South Korea to Qatar.

Washington has said several times the funds are being held in special accounts with restricted access that allow for them to be used by Iran solely for humanitarian goods, such as medicine and food.

Trump also accused Biden of being responsible for the "most embarrassing moment in the history of our country" for the U.S.-led withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan in August 2021.

While Trump himself had agreed to the withdrawal of international troops with the Taliban leadership a year before he left office, he did not finalize the plan and it fell to Biden to oversee the operation several years later.

Biden said that when Trump left office after losing the November 2020 election, "things were in chaos."

Trump is scheduled to speak in Virginia later on June 28, while Biden has remained in Atlanta, where the debate took place, and will speak at a campaign event.

With reporting by Reuters

Afghan Women Head To Olympics On Equal Footing

Afghan athletes, seen here at the last Olympics in Tokyo, will be competing under the same flag despite the Taliban's seizure of power.
Afghan athletes, seen here at the last Olympics in Tokyo, will be competing under the same flag despite the Taliban's seizure of power.

Afghan athletes face formidable hurdles under Taliban rule, particularly women, who are denied the chance to compete or even enter a gym. But when the Olympics open in Paris next month, Afghanistan will be represented by a team that epitomizes equality and global resistance to the Taliban's disregard for women's rights.

Afghanistan will field a six-member Olympic team that will consist of three women and three men, all chosen by the exiled Afghan National Olympic Committee (NOC). The team has the full support of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which believes a gender-balanced team will serve as a positive example to the world.

The Taliban, which remains internationally isolated and whose unrecognized rule of Afghanistan has been marked by human rights abuses, has no stake in the team or the selection process.

Representatives of the Taliban and its authoritative bodies were denied accreditation for the Olympics and will not be represented in any way during the games that open on July 26.

The hard-line Islamist group's ban on women's sports is part of its raft of infamous restrictions that deprive Afghan women and girls of the opportunity to pursue education, employment, mobility, and deny them any prominent role in government or society.

In Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, women must be accompanied by a male chaperone even to travel outside their homes, and are barred from competitions or even working out in public gyms.

But in Paris, the athletes representing Afghanistan will be breaking taboos and restrictions. The team was selected with the goal of showcasing gender equality, and features the same number of women and men.

Kimia Yousefi, Afghanistan's fastest woman and soon to be a three-time Olympian, will be looking to best the Afghan national record of 13.29 seconds she set in the 100 meters in Tokyo. She served as the flag-bearer for Afghanistan nearly three years ago in those COVID-delayed games, which wrapped up just days before the Taliban seized power in Kabul in August 2021.

Yousefi will be joined by the Hashemi sisters, Fariba and her older sibling Yulduz, road cyclists who are on track to be the first-ever -- male or female -- to represent Afghanistan in cycling at the Olympics.

Afghanistan's fastest runner, Shah Mahmud Noorzai (center), hopes to be a record-setter in Paris.
Afghanistan's fastest runner, Shah Mahmud Noorzai (center), hopes to be a record-setter in Paris.

Swimmer Fahim Anwari is among those who will be competing for Afghanistan under the anthem as well as the black, red, and green flag of the former Afghan republic ousted by the Taliban.

The tumultuous political changes in the Olympian's homeland since he represented Afghanistan in Tokyo have upturned his life and those of his compatriots.

Limited Resources

After the Taliban’s seizure of power, Anwari fled to Germany, where he has trained with limited resources and continues to represent Afghanistan in international swimming competitions.

“Problems and challenges in exile severely disrupted my practice,” he told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “But I am doing my best to pursue my goals.”

Afghanistan's fastest man, sprinter Shah Mahmud Noorzai, will be competing in the 100 meters.

“I have trained well for the Paris games,” Noorzai, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.

Noorzai fled to neighboring Iran after the Taliban rolled into Kabul. With the help of the IOC, he trained with Iranian athletes.

Noorzai said he is looking forward to beating the national record he set in Tokyo in the 100 meters, which he ran in 10.23 seconds.

“I am proud to be the fastest man in Afghanistan,” he said. “To be the fastest man in Afghanistan’s history.”

Afghanistan's national team duirng the opening ceremony at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Afghanistan's national team duirng the opening ceremony at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Yunas Popalzai, the exiled secretary-general of the Afghan NOC, told Radio Azadi that in addition to Noorzai and Anwari, the judoka Mohmmad Samim will represent Afghanistan.

Akhtari said five of the Team Afghanistan athletes were based outside their home country.

“As all women’s sports are suspended in Afghanistan, [the female athletes] who were put forward were not introduced from inside the country,” he told the AFP news agency this month.

Only Samim is believed to be based in Afghanistan itself.

The objective from the beginning was to choose a balanced team of men and women to represent Afghanistan.

“We made it clear we wanted a gender-equal team,” IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said earlier this month. “That was the demand, and that is what we achieved.”

“The clear idea is we want to get Afghan athletes and a gender-based team in Paris,” he said. “Because of the demonstration that it gives to the world, at home in Afghanistan, and also to the rest of the world.”

The IOC provides material and financial support for the Afghan athletes competing in the biggest global sports competition.

Adams stressed that the IOC is not allowing Taliban officials to participate in the Olympics and only recognizes the NOC's right to represent Afghan athletes.

"There will be no place for Afghan authorities, the Taliban," Adams said. "No representative of the de facto authorities, the Taliban government, will be accredited."

At least three Afghan men and two women will also compete for the IOC's Refugee Olympic Team, which represents 100 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.

Manizha Talash, a breakdancer who was born in Kabul, discovered the sport on social media, and now lives in Spain, is among those who will compete with the 36-member team.

The Refugee Olympic Team will be led in Paris by Masomah Ali Zada, an Afghan road cyclist who competed for the Refugee Olympic Team in Tokyo in 2021.

Nigara Shaheen, a judoka in the 70-kilogram category, grew up as an Afghan refugee in Pakistan and practiced martial arts as a family tradition. She has lived and trained in Canada since 2022 and was also named on the Refugee Olympic Team.

Three male Afghans will be on the Refugee Olympic Team-- Amir Ansari in road cycling, Arab Sibghatullah in judo, and Farzad Mansouri in taekwondo.

Afghanistan first participated in the Olympics in 1936, but has only won two medals.

Rohullah Nikpah won men’s taekwondo medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and in the 2012 games in London.

Written by Abubakar Siddique based on reporting by Radio Azadi correspondent Faiza Ibrahimi.

'Our Only Joy': Afghan Cricket Fans Celebrate T20 Glory

'Our Only Joy': Afghan Cricket Fans Celebrate T20 Glory
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Celebrations of Afghanistan's historic progress to the T20 cricket World Cup semifinals took place across the country, although residents in Taliban-stronghold Kandahar said they were prevented from joining in. One happy fan in Badakhshan Province told RFE/RL that amid the economic and social problems of Taliban rule, the cricket victory over Bangladesh was "our only joy."

Cholera Outbreak Hits Afghanistan Amid Natural Disasters, Crumbling Health Care

An Afghan woman holds her child as a man salvages his belongings from floodwaters outside their house in Maymana, the capital of northern Faryab Province, in May.
An Afghan woman holds her child as a man salvages his belongings from floodwaters outside their house in Maymana, the capital of northern Faryab Province, in May.

Shahabuddin had a brush with death when floods ripped through his community and washed away his home in northern Afghanistan.

Having survived one near-death experience, Shahabuddin soon encountered another foe: disease.

“Within 24 hours, I was so weak that I could barely walk,” the father of four, who lives in the province of Baghlan, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.

Shahabuddin is among the nearly 47,000 Afghans who have contracted cholera so far this year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

A highly infectious bacterial disease, cholera spreads through contaminated food and water and results in acute diarrhea, fever, and dehydration. If untreated, it can lead to death.

Relatives offer prayers during a burial ceremony near the graves of victims who lost their lives following flash floods after heavy rainfall in northern Baghlan Province in May.
Relatives offer prayers during a burial ceremony near the graves of victims who lost their lives following flash floods after heavy rainfall in northern Baghlan Province in May.

At least 25 people have died of the disease so far in 2024 in Afghanistan, which has the highest number of cases in the world, according to a WHO report released on June 19.

Experts said a series of natural disasters, including floods that devastated swaths of northern and central Afghanistan in the spring and the country’s crumbling health-care system, are behind the sharp rise in cases.

'No Access To Clean Water'

Sharafat Zaman Amar, a spokesman for the Taliban’s Ministry of Health, said Afghanistan “does not have any confirmed” cases of cholera.

But Faridullah Omari, a physician at the National Infectious Disease Hospital in Kabul, said each day the hospital receives up to 80 patients who are suffering from water-borne diseases like cholera.

He suggested the cholera outbreak has been fueled by lack of hygiene and more people drinking unsafe water.

Communities affected by the recent floods, which killed hundreds and impacted tens of thousands of people, said the deluges destroyed much of the water supply and infrastructure in the region. They also said there was a severe shortage of medicines available to treat infectious diseases like cholera.

Afghan men practice walking with artificial limbs at an orthopedic hospital supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul. (file photo)
Afghan men practice walking with artificial limbs at an orthopedic hospital supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul. (file photo)

"People don't have access to clean water,” said Sharifullah, a resident of the northern province of Sar-e Pol, which was hit by floods.

“All the water is muddy from the floods,” he told Radio Azadi. “But people use this [dirty] water, and they don't have the means to clean it. So people, especially children, are suffering from diarrhea.”

Khodayaqal, a resident of Baghlan, said they have little access to health-care facilities after the mobile clinics deployed by aid agencies and the Taliban government in the aftermath of the floods left.

“Our children are battling with diseases,” he told Radio Azadi. “We have one clinic here, but it doesn’t have any medicine.”

In its report, the WHO said diminishing stocks of cholera vaccines, as well as population growth, natural disasters, and climate change, have led to cholera outbreaks.

The public health-care system in Afghanistan, which was largely funded by foreign aid for nearly two decades, has been in free-fall since the Taliban takeover in 2021. The militants’ seizure of power led international donors to immediately cut financial funding.

Hundreds of health facilities have been closed in the past three years, with no funds to pay the salaries of doctors and nurses. Hospitals that are still open suffer from severe shortages of medicine.

While some foreign aid organizations continue to operate in Afghanistan, many of them have been forced to curb their work as international funding diminishes.

Pakistani Security Forces Killed In Bomb Attack Claimed By Tehrik-e Taliban

Residents of Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province protest against a lack of security in the region in a June 15 demonstration that condemned both the government and extremists.
Residents of Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province protest against a lack of security in the region in a June 15 demonstration that condemned both the government and extremists.

Pakistan's military said at least five soldiers in a troop convoy were killed by a roadside bomb in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province near the Afghan border in an attack claimed by the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a longtime ally of the Afghan Taliban. The attack comes after the group announced a unilateral cease-fire on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr holiday from June 17-19. The region has seen an increase in the number of deadly attacks in the past year attributed to the TTP. Relations between Afghanistan's Islamist rulers and Pakistan have been tense since the Taliban returned to power in 2021, with Islamabad blaming the Taliban for sheltering the TTP. Residents of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have protested against the lack of security provided by Islamabad and against the actions of extremists. To read the original story by Radio Mashaal, click here.

No Afghan 'Reintegration' Without Progress On Rights, Says UN

Afghan women on June 10 protest against the Taliban's upcoming participation in a UN conference in Doha.
Afghan women on June 10 protest against the Taliban's upcoming participation in a UN conference in Doha.

Restrictions on women's rights continue to prevent Afghanistan's "reintegration" into the international community, a senior UN official said on June 21, adding that the Taliban's participation in talks in Doha on June 30-July 1 is not legitimization of the isolated hard-liners' government. Since their 2021 return to power, Taliban authorities have not been formally recognized by any nation and apply a rigorous interpretation of Islam, leading to suppression of women's freedoms that the UN has described as gender apartheid. Restrictions on women and girls, particularly in education, "deprive the country of vital human capital" and lead to a brain drain that undermines the impoverished country's future, Roza Otunbayeva, head of the UN mission in the country, UNAMA, told the Security Council.

The Azadi Briefing: Sharp Rise In The Number Of Afghans Executed In Iran

A Taliban fighter checks the passports of Afghans crossing into Iran at the border crossing of Islam Qala in the western Afghan province of Herat.
A Taliban fighter checks the passports of Afghans crossing into Iran at the border crossing of Islam Qala in the western Afghan province of Herat.

Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.

I'm Abubakar Siddique, senior correspondent at RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.

The Key Issue

Human rights groups have documented a sharp rise in the number of Afghans executed in neighboring Iran.

At least 13 Afghans have received the death penalty in the Islamic republic so far this year, according to the Norway-based NGO Iran Human Rights (IHR).

Another NGO -- the Norway-based group Hengaw, which closely tracks human rights violations in Iran -- put the number at 14.

Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the director of IHR, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that the number is double compared to the same period in 2023.

Amiry-Moghaddam said seven of the Afghans executed this year were convicted of murder. The rest, he said, received the death penalty over drug-related offenses.

Amiry-Moghaddam said many Afghans do not get fair trials. Thousands of Afghans are believed to be on death row in Iran.

Why It's Important: The spike in the executions comes amid a mass deportation drive targeting members of Iran's large community of Afghans.

An estimated 4.3 million Afghans currently live in Iran, according to the UN. More than 1 million have been deported in the past year.

Afghans suffer widespread abuse and discrimination in Iran, where they have often been blamed for insecurity and unemployment.

Activists have said the sharp rise in the executions of Afghans could be aimed at instilling fear in the community and discouraging other Afghans from fleeing to the Islamic republic.

An estimated 70 percent of the estimated 3.6 million Afghans who have fled their homeland after the Taliban seized power in 2021 moved to Iran.

Already one of the world's biggest executioners, Iran has intensified its use of the death penalty by carrying out at least 853 executions in 2023, a 48 percent rise from the previous year, Amnesty International said in a report released last month.

What's Next: Iranian authorities appear unlikely to significantly decrease their use of the death penalty, which rights groups say is aimed at creating fear in the population and tightening their grip on power.

As one of Iran's most marginalized and impoverished communities, Afghans are likely to continue to be the target of executions.

What To Keep An Eye On

A new World Health Organization (WHO) report says at least 25 people have died from cholera in Afghanistan so far this year.

The WHO says in 2024 there have been nearly 47,000 cases of the bacterial disease, which spreads through contaminated food and water.

Afghanistan is among the top five countries globally with the most cholera cases, alongside neighboring Pakistan, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and the Congo.

The WHO says diminishing stocks of cholera vaccines as well as population growth, natural disasters, and climate change have led to cholera outbreaks.

Why It's Important: Afghanistan's heath-care system, which was propped up by foreign aid for nearly two decades, has been in crisis since the Taliban takeover. The militants' seizure of power led international donors to immediately cut financial funding.

Hundreds of health facilities have been closed in the past three years, with no funds to pay the salaries of doctors and nurses. Hospitals that are still open suffer from severe shortages of medicine.

While some foreign aid organizations continue to operate in Afghanistan, many of them have been forced to curb their work as international funding diminishes.

That's all from me for now.

Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have. You can always reach us at azadi.english@rferl.org

Until next time,

Abubakar Siddique

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every Friday.

Afghan Refugee Hasn't Saved '5 Pennies' During Decades In Pakistan

Afghan Refugee Hasn't Saved '5 Pennies' During Decades In Pakistan
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On World Refugee Day, the plight of millions of displaced Afghans is illustrated by Abdul Raziq, a bricklayer at a kiln in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan Province. Having fled his homeland decades ago, Raziq has done backbreaking manual labor for years, but he still struggles to get by. But going back to Afghanistan would be worse, he said.

Germany Blasted For Considering Deportations Of Afghans, Syrians

The stabbing death of a police officer in late May prompted calls for Germany to reconsider its ban against deportations to Taliban-run Afghanistan.
The stabbing death of a police officer in late May prompted calls for Germany to reconsider its ban against deportations to Taliban-run Afghanistan.

A push for Germany to consider the viability of using third countries to deport Afghan and Syrian refugees and process asylum seekers is meeting stiff resistance from rights groups and advocates.

The issue was a major topic of discussion in talks between Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the leaders of Germany's 16 states in Berlin on June 20.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said during a meeting of regional interior ministers the same day that "concrete negotiations" are under way and that she was "confident" a way would be found to deport Afghan or Syrian immigrants convicted of serious crimes.

Faeser said the measures would only affect a small number of people, and that in the case of Afghan nationals deportations could be conducted via third countries such as Uzbekistan.

Ahead of the meetings, which came on World Refugee Day, more than 300 organizations issued an open letter to Scholz in which they sharply criticized the initiative.

"Please issue a clear rejection of plans to outsource asylum procedures," said the letter, whose signatories included Amnesty International Germany, Doctors Without Borders, and the German migrant advocacy group Pro Asyl.

"Plans to deport refugees to non-European third countries or to carry out asylum procedures outside the EU...do not work in practice, are extremely expensive, and pose a threat to the rule of law."

The signatories argued such measures would result in serious human rights abuses and integrating asylum seekers into society can succeed with greater cooperation.

The backlash against refugees has risen among conservative and hard-right politicians after a 25-year-old Afghan was accused of stabbing a German police officer to death late last month.

Germany halted deportations to Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power in Kabul in August 2021, and Berlin has no diplomatic ties with the de-facto government formed by the hard-line Islamist leaders.

Germany is also a major destination for Syrians seeking to escape that country's civil war and rule under leader Bashar al-Assad. Syrians are the largest refugee group in Germany, with hundreds of thousands allowed into the country since 2015.

The security and human rights situations in both Afghanistan and Syria are considered dire by watchdogs.

Scholz has previously backed dropping Germany's ban on deportations, however. On June 19 his vice chancellor, Robert Habeck, voiced his support for deportations at least in situations where individuals were suspected of terrorism or convicted of serious crimes like murder.

Proponents of the idea are reportedly considering whether it might be possible to conduct such deportations through third countries such as Uzbekistan while still staying in compliance with international law.

Faeser told the Neue Osnabrucker newspaper that negotiations have taken place with "various countries" and "we want to consistently expel and deport Islamist threats."

The Interior Ministry is also reportedly seeking ways of conducting asylum proceedings in third countries outside the European Union, similar to plans by Italy with Albania. The United Kingdom's deal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda has also been cited by advocates as an example.

Michael Stuebgen, the interior minister of the eastern state of Brandenburg, has argued Germany could engage in talks with the Taliban and that parts of Syria are secure enough to allow the returns of refugees.

Opponents have argued that deportations of Afghans and Syrian refugees would go against the German constitution and commitments under international law and that the outsourcing of asylum procedures would violate asylum-seekers' human rights.

During their three days of talks that end on June 21, the state interior ministers are also reportedly considering cutting welfare benefits paid to Ukrainian refugees.

With reporting by dpa and AP

'A Big Betrayal': Afghan Women Sound The Alarm Ahead Of Key International Event That Will Include Taliban

Afghan women chant slogans in protest at the closure of universities to women by the Taliban in Kabul in December 2022.
Afghan women chant slogans in protest at the closure of universities to women by the Taliban in Kabul in December 2022.

Leading Afghan women’s rights activists have sounded the alarm ahead of a major international conference on Afghanistan hosted by the United Nations.

Rights campaigners have slammed the world body for inviting the Taliban to the June 30-July 1 event in Qatar, a move that they say provides tacit international legitimacy to the Taliban’s unrecognized and internationally sanctioned government.

Activists are also enraged that the UN has made major concessions to the extremist group, which has severely curtailed women’s rights since seizing power in 2021. That includes preventing the participation of Afghan women and removing the issue of women’s rights from the agenda of the meeting in the Qatari capital, Doha.

Sima Samar, an award-winning rights campaigner and the former head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, is among those who have voiced their concerns ahead of the meeting.

“When we talk about the critical issues in Afghanistan, it will be meaningless without a discussion on human rights and the right of women to education and work,” Samar told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.

Prominent Afghan rights activist Shaharzad Akbar has described the removal of issues like women's rights from the Doha meeting's agenda as a "big betrayal." (file photo)
Prominent Afghan rights activist Shaharzad Akbar has described the removal of issues like women's rights from the Doha meeting's agenda as a "big betrayal." (file photo)

The Doha conference will bring together members of the Taliban, the special envoys to Afghanistan of over a dozen countries, and UN officials. Afghan women are barred from the main meeting, but have been invited to an informal dinner before the two-day event kicks off.

Intended to increase international engagement with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, the meeting is expected to discuss issues that include economic development, climate change, and drug eradication.

The Taliban boycotted two previous UN-sponsored meetings held in Doha since last year. The hard-line Islamist group said it would only participate if it would be the sole representative of Afghanistan at the meetings.

The Taliban has also opposed the appointment of a UN special envoy to Afghanistan, one of the key issues discussed at previous Doha meetings. One of the envoy’s main tasks would be to promote intra-Afghan dialogue.

The militants have also refused to discuss their alleged human rights violations. The Taliban has been accused of gross abuses, including extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture, and denying Afghans -- women and girls in particular -- their fundamental human rights.

“I’m very concerned,” said Samar. “Human rights must top the agenda while everything else should be discussed within its framework.”

Samar said she is not against international engagement with the Taliban, which has been accused of imposing gender apartheid in Afghanistan.

“But these talks must not mean ignoring all the human rights violations,” she added. “Engagement with the Taliban should not translate to ignoring or closing your eyes to all the human rights violations.”

On June 4, United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan received a delegation led by the Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani.
On June 4, United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan received a delegation led by the Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani.

Shaharzad Akbar is another prominent Afghan women’s rights activist who has voiced alarm ahead of the meeting.

“This conference has been organized according to the wishes of the Taliban,” Akbar, who runs the independent advocacy organization, Rawadari, told Radio Azadi.

“I’m deeply concerned because removing issues like the rights of girls and women from the agenda is a big betrayal,” she added.

'Women's Rights Crisis'

International women’s rights activists have also blasted the UN and accused the world body of bowing down to the Taliban.

Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, said on X on June 17 that it was “shocking” that the UN had made “very serious concessions” to the Taliban by shutting out Afghan women from the Doha meeting and taking women rights off its agenda.

“The situation of women in Afghanistan is the most serious women’s rights crisis in the world,” Barr said in a statement on June 11. “That crisis is getting serious every day.”

Protesters participate in a rally in support of Afghan women's rights in London. (file photo)
Protesters participate in a rally in support of Afghan women's rights in London. (file photo)

Meanwhile, Richard Bennett, the UN special human rights rapporteur in Afghanistan, said the Taliban “must not be allowed to dictate the terms of the UN-hosted meetings.”

“Sustained improvements in human rights must form an essential part of any way forward,” he told the UN Human Rights Council on June 18.

Zabiullah Mujahid, the chief Taliban spokesman, said Bennet’s comments and his scathing recent report about human rights in Afghanistan was part of an effort to “mislead public opinion ahead of the Doha meeting.”

Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a spokesman for the Taliban’s Foreign Ministry, said on June 16 that “if there are any changes to the agenda and participation, it would naturally affect our decision” to participate in the Doha meeting.

Graeme Smith, a senior Afghanistan analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said a host of Western countries complained in writing to the UN about the lack of non-Taliban Afghan voices invited to the Doha meeting.

“One of the factors that resulted in the Taliban’s failure to attend previous meetings was the Taliban’s insistence on serving as the only Afghans speaking on behalf of the country,” said Smith. “Some international officials object to this idea, demanding the inclusion of so-called civil society actors.”

How Survivors Of Wartime Sexualized Violence Are Fighting For Justice And Reparations

Rehabilitation, compensation, and, perhaps more importantly, the satisfaction that justice has been served. For survivors of wartime sexualized violence worldwide those are the essential aims of any reparations program.

However, aims don't always match outcomes. Survivors rarely receive comprehensive reparations. Instead, they often spend years in courtrooms, seeking at least some form of justice, while their attackers -- and the states they were representing -- often evade accountability.

On the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, RFE/RL tells the stories of survivors from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, Kosovo, Chechnya, and Afghanistan and their personal struggles to seek justice.

Ukraine: 'I Want To See Them Punished'

Lyudmyla Huseynova
Lyudmyla Huseynova

Human rights activist Lyudmyla Huseynova, a survivor of wartime sexualized violence, is now one of the leading voices advocating for the rights of survivors in Ukraine.

Since 2014, when Russia seized control of Crimea and began backing separatists in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, she has also been helping orphans living near the front lines.

It was in the Donetsk region in 2019 that she was abducted by separatists. Falsely accused of espionage and extremism, Huseynova was brought to the infamous Izolyatsia prison in the city of Donetsk.

The Russian military and separatists in charge of the prison routinely subjected those under their control to physical and psychological abuse and torture, including of Huseynova, who said she suffered torture and sexualized violence.

"For example, everyone, just everyone, went through forced stripping at Izolyatsia, that's for sure," she recalled. "And then -- it's impossible to say who was or wasn't lucky, because it will sound cynical -- then there were many women who survived [sexualized violence]. The militants blackmailed some women, so to speak, with the chance of seeing or speaking to their children. It's so cynical and so disgusting."

In 2022, she was released as part of an all-female prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia, along with 107 other women. Now, Huseynova is fighting for reparations and punishment for the rapists, not only in her own case but in those of other survivors.

After her release, she filed a case against Russia both with Ukrainian prosecutors and at the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

"One of my personal hopes is to see them punished. I was so happy when I received confirmation that my complaint had been accepted for consideration by the [ECHR] court. And there it says [on the document]: Huseynova Vs. Russia," Huseynova said.

"In it, I documented everything that happened to me: the illegal detention, the inhumane conditions, and the instances of sexualized violence, as well as the total lack of any medical care."

In April 2024, Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian parliament commissioner for human rights, announced the launch of an interim program to compensate the wartime survivors of sexualized violence at the hands of the Russian Army. According to a statement, up to 500 survivors will receive onetime compensation of 3,000 euros ($3,200) and additional psychological assistance from the Global Survivors Fund, a survivors-focused NGO administering the program.

"Reparations to survivors of gross human rights violations, especially victims of conflict-related sexual violence, are not limited to economic support. It is an important step toward establishing justice," Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska said in early March while discussing the program.

Alongside this, Ukrainian authorities are seeking full reparations from Russia, according to Iryna Didenko, who heads the department of the Prosecutor-General's Office handling cases of war-related sexual violence.

"We are collecting evidence for the international courts mostly. Our survivors are ready to go and testify in another country. This is what we are trying to achieve in all possible ways," Didenko told RFE/RL.

Didenko's office has documented nearly 300 cases of sexualized violence committed by invading Russian forces since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, although the true number is feared to be much higher and growing.

Survivors of sexualized violence are also seeking other forms of compensation from Russia as well, says Khrystyna Kit, director of Ukrainian female lawyers association JurFem.

"We are also talking about other forms of reparations, in line with international law," Kit said.

Igor Cvetkovski, a specialist from the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM) who is currently working in Ukraine, says reparations can include "psychosocial support" and "vocational training," along with "helping children born from rape."

Given the fact that many survivors of sexualized violence may not come forward, it is important that they have the option to seek help and justice even decades later, Cvetkovski says.

Bosnia-Herzegovina: Not Paying Up

Lawyer Ajna Mahmic from Trial International
Lawyer Ajna Mahmic from Trial International

Ms. A, as she was referred to in court documents, was sexually assaulted near Sarajevo in 1993 in an area controlled by ethnic Serb forces. She was 32 at the time of the attack and has been waiting nearly as many years for compensation.

She came closer to finding justice in 2015, when her attacker was found guilty in a Bosnian court of wartime rape and sentenced to eight years in prison. He was also ordered to pay his victim the equivalent of some $16,000 but has not yet paid, claiming he did not have the money.

Four years later, Ms. A also appealed to the UN Committee Against Torture, which issued a recommendation in 2019 that Bosnia-Herzegovina compensate her instead. But that too has not happened.

Nearly 30 years after the end of the war in Bosnia, survivors of wartime sexual violence are still struggling to access the assistance and protection they need.

"The working group [in Bosnia] appointed to implement the decision and create a strategic plan of measures for implementation was truly dysfunctional," said Ms. A's lawyer, Ajna Mahmic, who works with Trial International, a Geneva-based NGO that helps victims and seeks justice for international crimes.

During the Bosnian War, which lasted from 1992 to 1995, it is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 women, girls, and men were raped. Many of them never received proper medical and psychological care or financial support. Bosnia does not have a countrywide law to support victims of war, including those who have suffered sexual violence.

Thirty-two individuals were convicted for crimes of sexual violence by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which ceased functioning in December 2017. Since then, more than 90 convictions on sexual-violence charges have been handed down by local courts. In some cases, perpetrators were obliged to pay compensation ranging from $8,200 to $33,000.

While across the former Yugoslavia efforts have been made to bring perpetrators of wartime sexual violence to justice, their victims have largely been forgotten, Cvetkovski says.

"There has been no regional reparations program, nor an adequate national reparations program -- except for laws in Croatia and Kosovo, and some efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina," Cvetkovski told RFE/RL.

"However, there has been no comprehensive approach to reparations for victims of sexual violence or any other type of victims."

In its findings, the UN Committee Against Torture also recommended that Bosnia create a fund to compensate all wartime victims of sexual crimes, a system of psychological support, as well as issue a public apology.

However, since the UN recommendations were made five years ago, a working group has been created but made little progress.

Jasna Zecevic, the president of Vive Zene, a Bosnian NGO that provides comprehensive support for rape victims, says that survivors are still struggling to receive compensation for their suffering.

Those efforts are hampered by Bosnia's complicated administrative system, with separate applicable laws for each of the country's three entities: the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Republika Srpska, and the Brcko District.

Those differences in legislation have led to uneven access to rights, according to Trial International, as well as varying compensation awards. Depending on where they live, survivors of sexual violence in Bosnia can receive monthly compensation as low as the equivalent of $75 or as much as the equivalent of $373.

Progress on the issue is slow, according to Cvetkovski, not because of a lack of funds but more a lack of political will.

Kosovo: Delayed Justice Is Denied Justice

Feride Rushiti, head of the Kosovo Rehabilitation Center for Torture Survivors
Feride Rushiti, head of the Kosovo Rehabilitation Center for Torture Survivors

Since 2023, April 14 has been observed in Kosovo as the Day of Sexual Violence Victims who suffered during the 1998-99 Kosovo War, where Serbian forces terrorized the ethnic Albanian population.

While the number of sexual-violence survivors from the conflict remains unknown, a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the figure as high as 20,000 people.

This day, Kosovar officials say, serves to "recognize the pain" of all survivors of sexual violence during the war and to contribute to collective memory.

Kosovo has taken some steps to help survivors. In 2018, Kosovo instituted a reparations system, paying victims of wartime sexual violence the equivalent of $245 a month. But advocates say this falls short of what those affected need.

"While survivors of sexual violence are eligible to receive this monthly payment as...recognition of their suffering during wartime as rape victims, it ruled out them receiving old-age pensions," said Feride Rushiti, executive director of the Kosovo Rehabilitation Center for Torture Survivors (KRCT), a Kosovar NGO providing aid and support to survivors of sexual violence.

'Not Victims, But Survivors': Kosovar Activist Speaks Out About Wartime Rape
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However, just recently, the Basic Court of Pristina, Kosovo's top judicial body, ruled in favor of three survivors of sexual violence, awarding them not only compensation but a pension as well, Rusiti says.

Fitorja (not her real name) had her status confirmed as a victim of a war crime, entitling her to a monthly payment of the equivalent of 230 euros.

She was already receiving a lower standard pension, but she gave that up after the government informed her that she was entitled to just one pension.

Since 2021, with the help of KRCT, she has been fighting to keep her pension and the monthly payment. "The stress and waiting destroy you. [The termination of one pension] should not have happened," the 71-year-old Fitorja said.

The court's ruling in her favor, along with two other survivors, was a partial victory. Another seven similar cases are now going through the judicial system.

Chechnya: Living In The Shadows

In 2000, Russian Army Colonel Yury Budanov, together with two of his subordinates, kidnapped and later strangled 18-year-old Elza Kungayeva, a resident of the Tangi-Chu village in Chechnya.

During his trial in 2003, the colonel, who was part of the Russian force fighting separatists in the republic, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of murder, kidnapping, and abuse of power. He was stripped of his rank and ordered to pay the family 330,000 rubles (about $11,000 at the 2003 exchange rate).

Budanov was released from prison on parole in 2009, yet Kungayeva's family got nothing from the ex-army colonel, who was assassinated in 2011, and they have also not received anything from the state.

In Chechnya, that is a familiar story. Following the conflicts of the 1990s and 2000s, thousands of people who suffered war crimes or who lost their homes and families are still waiting for compensation from the authorities.

The exact number of sexualized-violence survivors during both wars is unknown, largely due to a reluctance to report such crimes in Chechnya due to social stigma and the overall distrust of the authorities.

The Kungayeva's family lawyers insisted on including two reports from independent forensic experts that confirmed that Kungayeva was raped. The rape charges, however, were eventually excluded from the indictment.

Afghanistan: Silence And Stigma

Shaharzad Akbar, the last chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which was dissolved by the Taliban after they seized power in 2021
Shaharzad Akbar, the last chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which was dissolved by the Taliban after they seized power in 2021

Survivors of wartime sexual violence in Afghanistan, where women's rights have been dramatically curtailed by the ruling Taliban, are almost invisible.

To date, no aid or support has been provided to survivors. And since the Taliban seized power again in 2021, no institution exists to address the rights of war victims, says Shaharzad Akbar, the last chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The commission was dissolved when the fundamentalist militia returned to power.

Now in exile, Akbar, who heads the human rights watchdog Rawadari, says that, even before the Taliban's rise to power, there was no effective system to deal with victims of wartime sexual violence. Some officials, she says, appeared to blame survivors for failing to come forward to demand justice.

"There was no official mechanism to address their issues. The only thing that the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission could do was document all cases of war crimes, which included sexual violence and rape during the war," Akbar said. "There was no political will or inclination to address the rights of war victims."

Over the last 30 years, Afghanistan has endured a series of devastating conflicts, with the civil war of the early 1990s, two periods of Taliban rule, and the prolonged conflict following the U.S. invasion in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

It was Afghan women that suffered the most, says Shinkai Karokhail, a former member of Afghanistan's now dissolved parliament and a former Afghan ambassador to Canada.

"Unfortunately, there was no mechanism in place to identify those women who were sexually assaulted during the war, to listen to their demands, and to give them the courage to come forward and speak about the sexual assault they experienced," Karokhail said.

"In Afghanistan, victims of sexual assault often hide their identities, while the perpetrators often boast about their actions," she said, adding that in the deeply conservative country, survivors fear the stigma of coming forward.

According to Karokhail, Afghanistan's democratic government, which was in power before the Taliban takeover in 2021, did little to help female survivors.

It was commonly known that women were kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and some even sold at markets in Pakistan, Karokhail says. But one of the reasons why the issue of sexualized violence was ignored was that the people committing these assaults were in power themselves, Karokhail says.

And while women are now reluctant to come forward, Karokhail is convinced a few brave voices could trigger more.

"If a woman comes forward and says she has been sexually assaulted, I am sure that survivors of previous wars will also come forward and share their stories," Karokhail said.

'Systematic Discrimination': Taliban's Drastic Cut In Salaries Of Female State Employees Triggers Anger

An Afghan nurse cares for newborn children who lost their mothers during an attack at a hospital in Kabul. (file photo)
An Afghan nurse cares for newborn children who lost their mothers during an attack at a hospital in Kabul. (file photo)

Shugufta, an elementary school teacher, earned around $300 per month under the previous Western-backed Afghan government.

But after the Taliban seized power in 2021, the extremist group cut the salaries of female government employees by half.

Despite her lower income, Shugufta was relieved to work as the country grappled with an economic meltdown after the Taliban takeover.

The hard-line Islamist group has barred thousands of women employed by the previous government from returning to their jobs. Only women whose jobs cannot be done by men according to the militants' strict interpretation of Shari'a law -- including doctors, nurses, and teachers -- have been permitted to work.

But in a major blow, the Taliban-led government last week issued a decree that set the monthly salaries of all female government employees at 5,000 afghanis, or around $70, regardless of their job, qualifications, or experience.

For many women, that means a drop of up to 75 percent in their wages at a time when Afghanistan is grappling with mass unemployment and rising poverty.

A female Afghan teacher in the northern province of Jawzjan
A female Afghan teacher in the northern province of Jawzjan

"It is impossible to live on this income," Shugufta's mother, Saliha, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "Our financial problems have skyrocketed."

The decision has been condemned by Afghan and international rights activists, who said the move illustrated the Taliban's discrimination against women.

Female state employees, some of whom are sole breadwinners, said they will struggle to feed their families.

The Taliban's decision came ahead of Eid al-Adha on June 17, one of the biggest holidays of the Islamic calendar.

"The Taliban didn't listen to our pleas to pay us our full salaries this month," said Muzhda, a female government employee from the western city of Herat.

Muzhda told Radio Azadi that she did not know how she would be able to afford rent, food, and medicine for her family, who depend on her income.

Afghanistan has been gripped by the world's largest humanitarian crisis. Millions of Afghans are on the verge of starvation, according to the United Nations.

An Afghan woman doctor treats a patient at a hospital in Kabul. (file photo)
An Afghan woman doctor treats a patient at a hospital in Kabul. (file photo)

Nazifa Haqpal, a British-based Afghan researcher, said the Taliban's decision to halve the salaries of female public workers "constitutes systematic discrimination."

"Women who work in government institutions and important fields like medicine are earning less while their male colleagues are receiving a higher salary," she told Radio Azadi.

Volker Turk, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said the "discriminatory and profoundly arbitrary decision further deepens the erosion of human rights in Afghanistan."

In a June 13 statement, he called on the Taliban to "rescind all laws, instructions, edicts, and other measures that discriminate against women and girls."

During its nearly three years in power, the militant group has severely curtailed women and girls' appearances, freedom of movement, and right to work and study.

Saji Behgam, an Afghan women's rights activist, said the Taliban's decision will cripple women-led households, including widows.

"Where should these women go?" she told Radio Azadi. "Should they just commit suicide?"

Written by Abubakar Siddique based on reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

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