What Matiullah Wesa means to Afghans and what his detention should mean to the world

The Taliban's justifications for the education activist's arrest have been nothing but shameful

An undated handout image of Matiullah Wesa teaching girls in Afghanistan. Photo: Pen Path
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On the evening of March 27, Taliban intelligence detained Matiullah Wesa, a renowned civil rights activist, as he left the mosque after evening prayers. His whereabouts are unknown, as are his crimes. His house has been raided, his family mistreated and his brothers briefly detained. I write this with a mouthful of pain to not just discuss the sequence of events, but to emphasise what Wesa meant to the Afghan people and what his detention should mean to the world.

There have rarely ever been figures in Afghanistan that are admired and appreciated by all sides of the political spectrum. Matiullah Wesa had become the beacon of hope that did not strive for political power or short-term change but was addressing the core issue of illiteracy in the country. Since the ban on girls' education, he had pushed hard for the reopening of schools.

When we first started our week-long campaign under the hashtag #LetAfghanGirlsLearn, I remember calling Wesa and telling him that any education campaign in Afghanistan was meaningless if it did not have him on board. He stopped his domestic travels for a day to find a stable internet connection and join us on one of our events. Most activists in Afghanistan did not hesitate to nominate Wesa to any international event that required only one Afghan representative. There was none more deserving than him. I had joked with him in the past that I had lost faith in international awards knowing that all of them were not already on his shelf.

The Taliban's and their supporters' justifications for Wesa’s detention have been nothing but shameful. Some Taliban officials went so far as to share pictures that Wesa had previously shared of his meetings with foreign officials but with emojis for faces, attempting to paint it as evidence of the conspiratorial nature of his work. Other officials have gone on to tweet his pictures with his female activist colleagues to malign his character. He has also been falsely accused of instigating female protests in Kabul, citing pictures of him writing banners which he clearly only used in videos of his colleagues demanding the reopening of schools behind closed doors.

If Wesa is not safe under the Taliban regime, it makes one wonder if anyone ever will be

The worst justifications have come from Taliban lobbyists. They have either highlighted the uproar of condemnation for Wesa's detention as the reason why he would be treated with further suspicion by the Taliban or gone on to blame Western officials for meeting him and making him an ally. It is baffling that these lobbyists do not see how the absence of genuine voices on the international stage only creates more vacuum that will be filled by corrupt officials from the Republic who always have a malicious agenda. The Taliban seemed to have decided to convict Wesa before they had even found the smoking gun. Everything after has been an attempt to manufacture one. Innocent until proven guilty seems to be an alien concept to the regime.

If Wesa is not safe under the Taliban regime, it makes one wonder if anyone ever will be. A non-political activist, he had travelled from village to village over a decade proving that he wanted nothing but for families to send their children to school. Certain elements within the Taliban and the international community are pushing for the release of Wesa but it has become clearer by the day that the notorious general directorate of intelligence operates independently of the bodies to which it should be answerable.

The Taliban cannot expect to be granted popular legitimacy when they keep consciously repeating the mistakes of previous regimes. A subtle recognition of this problematic behaviour could be seen in the response of Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, to a journalist questioning him on the raid on Wesa’s house. The spokesperson, without any prelude, deflected to how these raids were not like the raids Nato conducted during their occupation. He accused Wesa of not informing the regime of his activities, holding private meetings and being dictated to from abroad. These are all accusations that I and many others are willing to testify against. Anyone familiar with Wesa’s work could see the public nature of his work, his refusal to take foreign funding and we know of the times the Taliban had already taken him in for questioning regarding his work.

If the Taliban imagine Wesa to just be one person who is not above this arbitrary enforcement of the "law" then they are gravely mistaken. Wesa represents the hope of the nation and unites the people of Afghanistan in desiring a better tomorrow. Wesa is not only our friend, he is our future.

Published: April 02, 2023, 11:00 AM