March 29, 2023
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Afghanistan’s Taliban confirmed Wednesday to VOA that they had detained a prominent education activist in the county, saying the man is being interrogated for “suspicious” activities.
The confirmation comes two days after Matiullah Wesa, the founder and head of PenPath—a community-based education support network—was picked up at gunpoint outside a mosque in the capital of Kabul after prayers on Monday evening, his family said.
The arrest has outraged the international community and drawn calls for his immediate release.
“Yes, Matiullah Wesa has been detained for investigation because the intelligence agency had some suspicious information about him,” Taliban chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA by phone.
“Wesa was organizing meetings and making contacts that were a cause of concern for us,” Mujahid said without elaborating. “It is the duty of the government to detain suspicious people and investigate them to ensure public order.”
On Tuesday, Thomas West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, urged the Taliban to release the education activist.
“The United States is deeply concerned about reports that revered education and rights activist @matiullahwesa was arrested by the Taliban,” West said on Twitter. “He has been a tireless and effective advocate for the education of boys and girls nationwide.”
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan also sought clarification from de facto Taliban authorities about the reasons for Wesa’s arrest and “to ensure his access to legal representation and contact with family.”
Wesa’s PenPath network, established in 2009, has been promoting education and schools for girls and negotiating with village elders in the conservative Afghan society to allow their girls to go to school.
The network has hundreds of volunteers across Afghanistan who help set up local classrooms, find teachers, distribute books and stationery, and organize community gatherings in support of education for both boys and girls.
The Taliban, however, have closed secondary schools for teenage girls, suspended female students from university education and ordered most women government employees to stay home since they took control of Afghanistan in August 2021. The hardline group has also banned women employees of non-governmental organizations from workplaces.
The Taliban returned to power 19 months ago as the United States and its Western coalition partners withdrew their troops from the country after almost two decades of involvement in the Afghan war.
The international community has been pressing the Taliban to remove bans on women’s access to work and education and respect civil liberties before granting them legitimacy.
Taliban leaders have ruled out any compromise on their governance, saying it is in line with Afghan culture and Islamic law.