Mounting Concern for the Safety of Writers
PEN International welcomes the police investigation into the shocking murder of Indian writer Sushmita Banerjee, killed in Kharana, Afghanistan, on September 5, 2013. However, the organization expresses its mounting concern for the escalating pattern of attacks on writers and journalists in the country. PEN calls upon the Afghan authorities to ensure that those responsible for Banerjee’s murder are brought to justice in accordance with international fair trial standards, and demands that all possible steps are taken to protect writers at risk in the country according to Afghanistan’s commitments under national and international law.
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On September 9, 2013, local police officials reportedly arrested two men—initially said to be armed militants connected to the Haqqani Network, an affiliate of the Taliban that has connections to Pakistan—in connection with the murder of Sushmita Banerjee. Banerjee, known variously as Sahib Kamala and Sushmita Bandopadhyay, is the author of the best-selling memoir A Kabuliwala's Bengali Wife. According to press reports, the suspects confessed to Banerjee’s murder. Local villagers reportedly led the police to the men, who were said to have been found with weapons, including explosives. Four other men arrested on September 11 reportedly indicated to the Afghan authorities that the plan was orchestrated in Pakistan by three Pakistani Taliban militants working with a local commander of the Afghan Taliban in Paktika. According to the BBC, the Afghan Taliban has denied responsibility for the attack. The precise reasons for the attack are unknown, but reports suggested that Banerjee was targeted by the group because of her criticism of the Taliban in her memoir, and because she had installed an Internet connection in her house. Subsequently, on September 15, news reports indicated that a splinter Taliban group—known as the Suicide Group of the Islamic Movement of Afghanistan—had admitted responsibility for Banerjee’s murder via a Western news website, claiming they had killed her because she was an “Indian spy," which her family denied.
Banerjee, age 49, was shot dead by armed assailants on September 5, 2013. According to reports, the men broke into her home and tied up her husband before kidnapping and shooting her at least 20 times. Banerjee’s body was left outside a madrasa (religious school) on the outskirts of Sharan City, Paktika province. Banerjee was an Indian Hindu who converted to Islam after marrying her husband, an Afghan Muslim businessman, in 1989. She had fled back to India after the Taliban took control of Paktika Province in 1993. Her memoir, published in 1998, retells her life in Afghanistan and subsequent flight from the country in 1995 after suffering persecution by the Taliban, including being whipped for refusing to wear a burqa and having a death fatwa issued against her. The book was later made into the 2003 Bollywood film Escape From Taliban. Banerjee had recently returned to Afghanistan to live with her husband and run a midwifery clinic. She had reportedly been filming the lives of local women as part of her work prior to her death, and was writing a second book.
Banerjee’s murder illustrates an escalating pattern of violence against writers and journalists in Afghanistan. PEN is aware of at least two writers who have been forced to flee Afghanistan since the beginning of the year after receiving death threats, including prominent Hazara writer Mohammad Jan Taqi Bakhtiari. An award-winning Afghan novelist, Bakhtiari was accused of blasphemy and given a death fatwa in January 2013 by a leading Islamist cleric, Sayyid Mohsen Hujjat, for his latest book Gumnani (Anonymity). Following the book’s October 2012 publication, Bakhtiari received numerous death threats through phone calls and text messages. In one incident, unknown people attacked his car on the streets of Kabul and later he found his books burned in front of his house. Bakhtiari went into hiding after receiving death threats, and fled to India on January 9, 2013. His family joined him on February 20, 2013. He has been granted refugee status by the UNHCR and is awaiting resettlement to a safe country. There are continued fears for his safety.
The Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC) notes that the trajectory of violence against journalists in 2013 has increased significantly in comparison to previous years. The Afghan Journalists Center (AfJC) registered 62 cases of violence against media and journalists from January to August 2013, 11 of whom were print journalists; the incidents include murders, injuries, physical and verbal abuse, death threats, and the closure of media outlets. Government officials and security forces, the Taliban, and illegal armed groups are among the alleged perpetrators of these violent attacks. In addition to concern for increasing violence against journalists, the AJSC also reports that the media faces increased financial challenges and growing restrictions with regard to access to information.
The 2004 Constitution provides for freedom of expression in Article 34, declaring “freedom of expression is inviolable." However, broader restrictions applying to any content which is seen as defamatory or “contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and sects” remain in place. Such restrictions place writers at risk in the country.
Four media laws have been approved since 2002, resulting in confusion over which law applies and consequent self-censorship. A recent report states that some articles of the 2009 Mass Media Law have yet to be implemented, while institutions established in previous versions of the law remain. In 2012, concerns were raised by both local and international NGOs about a proposed draft media bill to replace the 2009 law, which if implemented would expand government control over the media, including imposing constraints on the word choice of media outlets. While the 2003 Mass Media Law may have provided a solid foundation for the provision of free expression in Afghanistan, failures in implementation, confusion over subsequent legislation and consequent self-censorship are clearly cause for concern.
The pattern of violence against writers and journalists in Afghanistan is all the more disconcerting in light of the fact that the country is preparing for presidential and provincial council elections in 2014, as well as the withdrawal of international troops. PEN is calling on the Afghan authorities to place respect for freedom of expression and protection of journalists at the top of its agenda.
Write A Letter
- Expressing mounting concern about the escalating pattern of attacks on writers and journalists in Afghanistan, which has culminated recently in the shocking murder of Indian writer Sushmita Banerjee;
- Seeking assurances that all threats and attacks against writers and journalists are vigorously investigated so that those responsible can be brought to justice;
- Demanding that all necessary steps are taken to protect writers at risk in the country.
Send Your Letter To
His Excellency Hamid Karzai
President of the Islamic State of Afghanistan
Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Please send appeals via the ambassador for Afghanistan in your country, asking for their comments.
*Please check with PEN if sending appeals after October 15, 2013**