An Afghan-French journalist who spent 284 days imprisoned in Afghanistan has recalled how he was beaten, nearly choked, and interrogated.
Speaking at a news conference in the French capital, Paris, on Monday, the newly released Mortaza Behboudi said he didn’t think he would make it out of custody alive.
The Taliban arrested Behboudi outside Kabul University in January while the reporter was working on a story about how female students are banned from higher education.
He was held on charges of espionage and illegal support of foreigners until last week, when a Kabul court threw out all charges. The journalist said that neither his French passport nor his media credentials was enough to prevent him from being arrested.
The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, which provided legal support and campaigned to free Behboudi, described the court decision as a “huge relief.”
“It is the end of a painful ordeal and of constant worry for more than nine months,” said Christophe Deloire, RSF’s secretary general.
Behboudi was released Oct. 18.
Behboudi is part of the Shi’ite Hazara minority and had moved to France as a refugee in 2015 where he set up the news site Guiti with other exiled Afghans.
Speaking of his experiences in custody, Behboudi said, "I felt kidnapped.”
The journalist was kept in cells that measured two to three square meters, sharing the space with a dozen other detainees. Unable to see daylight, he said he soon lost track of time and was constantly harassed. He says the guards also beat him.
In one harrowing episode that Behboudi recalled to a French media outlet, the journalist said that Islamic State militants in his shared cell tried to choke him. A guard intervened and moved the journalist.
The Sunni Islamic State group for years has targeted predominantly Shi’ite Hazaras and other religious minorities.
Spokesmen for the Taliban did not respond to VOA’s requests for comment sent via messaging app.
A recent report by the U.N. mission in Afghanistan has said prisoners are subject to mistreatment and urged the authorities to act.
The Taliban have issued directives on detainees' rights, and the interior ministry said that an internal investigation found evidence of mistreatment at its detention centers and that it was working to address the issue.
Six months into his imprisonment, Behboudi was moved to a new prison in Kabul where he says conditions improved.
It was at that point that he learned the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders had provided him with a lawyer.
Now back in France and reunited with his family, Behboudi said he wanted to "move on.”
When the journalist traveled to Afghanistan at the start of 2023, he had planned to report on restrictions to women including on access to university and most higher education.
As well as education restrictions, women are currently blocked from being in parks, funfairs, and gyms, and cannot travel without a close male relative. Many are unable to work.
More than 80% of women who worked in media before the Taliban takeover no longer are in the profession, according to RSF data.
Afghanistan ranks as the worst performing country globally for the status of women, according to the Women, Peace and Security Index released by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the Peace Research Institute Oslo.
Behboudi said he felt fortunate to be released but that other Afghan journalists are not so lucky.
Under the Taliban, "Everything is censored these days,” Behboudi said.
"If I take photo on the street, I risk being arrested … There is no longer freedom of expression, there is no longer freedom of the press in Afghanistan."
The nonprofit Afghanistan Journalists’ Support Organization welcomed Behboudi’s release.
“The latest development underscores two critical points,” the organization said in a statement on his release.
“The unity and collaborative efforts of national and international professional bodies in supporting Afghan journalists can prove to be a powerful force,” the statement read, adding that Behboudi’s case “highlights the vital role played by international journalist support organizations.”
Some information in this report came from Agence France-Presse.