A Taliban prison cell. Photo: Sky News

Special Report: A chilling glimpse inside the Taliban prison in Balkh Province

Etilaat Roz, translated by Kazim Ehsan

On a cold winter afternoon in Mazar-i-Sharif, Balkh province, Asadullah (not his real name) was in the terrifying grip of the Taliban. Surrounded and arrested at a local shop, he was brutally beaten in public before being whisked away to a secret detention center.

Asadullah’s chilling narrative of his time in the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) detention center is a window into the horrors faced by countless others. Moments after his arrival, he was subjected to violent interrogation, his head submerged in water and his body struck with thick, woven wires, all without any explanation for his arrest.

The accusations against Asadullah soon surfaced: he was suspected of possessing a dozen illegal Kalashnikov rifles, a claim he vehemently denied. Despite his pleas of innocence, the Taliban continued to inflict unimaginable pain. Asadullah describes being hung upside down, electrocuted, choked, and subjected to other unspeakable forms of torture during his 32-day ordeal.

Ultimately, Asadullah was released on bail after weeks of relentless abuse, his claims of innocence finally substantiated by fruitless searches of his and his relatives’ homes. His harrowing account is echoed by hundreds of others who have suffered similar atrocities at the hands of the Taliban. Yet, speaking out about these experiences is fraught with challenges and dangers, as the shadow of the Taliban looms large over the lives of those who dare to share their stories.

Asadullah’s story is one of the countless others who have suffered under the brutal reign of the Taliban. Sharing these experiences with the media is a dangerous endeavor. Yet, outlets such as Etilaatroz and KabulNow have tried to report on the abuses endured by those imprisoned and tortured during the Taliban’s nearly two-year rule. 

This report draws on the accounts of six former Taliban prisoners, two lawyers, and various experts familiar with the group’s administration, all of whom have requested anonymity for their safety.

Despite the Taliban leadership’s declaration of a general amnesty following their takeover of Afghanistan, numerous reports, images, and videos depicting the mistreatment, torture, and execution of detainees – particularly former military personnel – have emerged on social media. 

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This is despite the stringent restrictions placed on media activities within the country. The amnesty was believed to be a ruse, as the Taliban continued to arrest and suppress those who opposed or had previously acted against them. The ongoing despotic behaviors and brutal oppression of dissents raise grave concerns over the country’s human rights situation and rising humanitarian catastrophe governed by the Taliban.

Reports published by UNAMA,  Human Rights Watch, and the United States Department of State 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices state that since the Taliban took power on August 15, 2021, hundreds of extrajudicial killings of former government and security officials by members of the de facto authorities recorded. 

In Balkh province, numerous individuals, including women activists, journalists, and former government and military personnel, have reportedly been arrested, tortured, or killed by the Taliban’s GDI, its morality police, and affiliated militias. One source stated, “We know from people inside the Taliban that their prisons, especially those under the GDI’s control, are filled with the former government and military personnel.”

According to sources familiar with the situation, detainees are held in two types of facilities: public prisons controlled by the Ministry of Interior and special prisons overseen by the GDI, where the most severe forms of torture are inflicted. The notorious Haqqani network leads both the GDI and the Ministry of Interior. The source explained that political prisoners, individuals accused of collaborating with anti-Taliban forces, activists, and protesters are typically held in GDI prisons. At the same time, those arrested for criminal offenses are detained in public prisons under the Ministry of Interior.

One former military officer shared his experience of being imprisoned for three months with Etilaatroz and KabulNow. He had left the Afghan army years before the Taliban took control and had been working in Iran. However, upon returning to Afghanistan in June 2022 to get married, he was arrested due to his military background and the appearance of photos on social media that showed him posing with former military officers living in Iran. He was accused of having ties to the National Resistance Front (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud.

Despite his efforts to clarify his situation, the officer was subjected to weeks of torture. “The Taliban treat prisoners like anything but human beings. Torture, abuse, and killing prisoners are something they enjoy doing,” he said. His captors used wicked torture methods, including beatings with plastic pipes and cables, electric shocks, and waterboarding. He was also hung upside down, had heavy objects tied to his genitals, had his nails pulled out, and was subjected to other brutal interrogation techniques.

A chilling glimpse: harrowing stories of torture and abuse of women prisoners 

The Taliban’s return to power has been accompanied by the imposition of oppressive laws that push women out of the public sphere, sparking civil protests among women activists in major cities across Afghanistan. These demonstrations, aimed at securing fundamental rights such as education, employment, and social participation, have been met with harsh responses from the Taliban. The group has beaten, arrested, and tortured scores of women and girls to suppress these protests, creating a nightmarish atmosphere within their prisons.

Recent investigative reports from Etilaatroz and KabulNow reveal that the Taliban have arrested and imprisoned over a thousand women in nearly two years. According to a Taliban security command spokesperson in Balkh and a credible source from Balkh’s public prison, there are currently 2,000 prisoners, at least 300 of whom are women. Sources say that In addition to women activists, hundreds of other women are held on various charges in Balkh province, including illegitimate relationships, running away from home, drug trafficking, prostitution, and domestic violence.

Four former female prisoners shared their harrowing experiences with Etilaatroz and KabulNow, shedding light on the appalling conditions within Taliban-controlled women’s prisons. Detainees face brutal punishments, abuse, and the denial of their basic rights. Alongside physical and emotional suffering, these women are often subjected to sexual violence and degradation.

Farozan (not her real name), a woman arrested on October 6, 2022, for participating in a protest organized by Balkh University students against the suspension of girls’ education, is willing to share her experiences of torture, violence, and humiliation during her 45 days in a Taliban prison. Speaking with KabulNow, Farozan revealed she faced the most brutal forms of violence and degradation during her first 15 days in the Taliban GDI prison, held in separate cells alongside other female prisoners.

Farozan was subjected to electric shocks, kicks, and blows to her head and face for two weeks. She and the other women were interrogated about their sources of funding and support for protesting against the so-called Islamic government. “Every day, they asked us the same questions: Where do you get your orders from, and who pays you to protest against us?” she said.

Rafee (not his real name), a lawyer familiar with such cases, shared even more heart-wrenching accounts of women’s experiences in Taliban prisons. In an interview with KabulNow, Rafee told the story of a woman, Beheshta (not her real name), who was arrested in September 2022 for participating in multiple protests against the Taliban. Beheshta may have been fortunate to be transferred to the women’s prison in Balkh Province, where she spent 23 days. Still, Rafee explained that she witnessed gruesome torture, hunger, and violence during her imprisonment.

Beheshta (not her real name) was arrested by the Taliban at a private gathering for a protest and subsequently transferred to a public prison. Rafee, quoting Beheshta, says, “Despite my family’s insistence that I should not participate in protests, I couldn’t convince myself to stand by and watch such inequality and persecution against women.”

These accounts expose the harrowing experiences of women in Taliban prisons and the sacrifices they make in their fight for equality and basic rights. Despite the grave consequences, these women’s courage demonstrates their resilience and determination to resist oppression and injustice.

Zahra (not her real name), arrested for helping another woman avoid a forced marriage, said she saw three to four women brought into prison daily. In an interview with Etilaatroz, she described how vulgar language, insults, humiliation, violence, and beatings were commonplace in women’s prisons and something she regularly witnessed.

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Furthermore, Zahra shared a chilling account of young female prisoners being forcibly dressed up and secretly taken to an unknown location at night, only to be returned to the prison before dawn. This raises concerns about the potential abuse and sexual exploitation of women prisoners in Taliban custody.

In an online interview with Etilaatroz/KabulNow, a woman calling herself Najla (not her real name) shares a similar account, confirming the sexual assault of younger female prisoners. She says she spent nearly four months in Mazar-i-Sharif (Balkh) prison on charges of having an illegitimate relationship and was forced to flee to Iran after her release.

Najla recalls being taken to an empty room at night by women’s prison staff, where the group’s forces sexually assaulted her after being beaten and insulted. “During the nearly four months I was in prison, I was sexually assaulted five times, and there were two or three people each time. No matter how much I screamed, no one heard my cries,” she said.

Najla also remembers resisting and questioning a militia member, asking, “If you are true Muslims, rape and adultery are forbidden in Islam; why are you doing this to me?” With a nasty smirk, he replied, “Since we are here, there is no need for others, so you don’t have to be in bed with others.”

Another lawyer familiar with conditions in Taliban prisons in Balkh province confirmed that almost all these women had endured brutal torture, sexual abuse, and harsh treatment from the Taliban during interrogation. “All women in the Taliban prison are repeatedly subjected to sexual assault, rape, and severe torture. However, they are unwilling to speak about it due to social stigma and potential consequences from the Taliban,” he noted.

These accounts underscore the dire situation of women imprisoned by the Taliban, who face an unspeakable extent of abuse, assault, and mistreatment. However, the mistreatment, violence, and abuse of prisoners in the Taliban prison system are not new. Both media and human rights organizations have published numerous heartbreaking and horrifying reports. Despite these, the international community, the United Nations, and global human rights organizations have yet to display significant pressure or take tangible actions in response to the appalling instances of prisoner torture perpetrated by the Taliban.