Photojournalist Detained by Taliban For 23 Days Released Amid Death Sentence Fears

By Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist and currently a news reporter at The Epoch Times. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
October 1, 2021 Updated: October 2, 2021

A photojournalist who was detained for 23 days by the Taliban after he covered a women’s protest against the terrorist group has been released, a close friend of the 21-year-old confirmed in an interview with The Epoch Times.

Freelance photographer Morteza Samadi, 21, was arrested by the Taliban on Sept. 7 after he covered a protest in the western city of Herat. He was, according to fellow freelance photojournalist Massoud Hossaini, accused by the Islamic terrorist group of “spying” and of encouraging people on his Facebook page to stand up to the Taliban.

A friend of Samadi, Elias—a pseudonym used for safety—told The Epoch Times that he was released late on Thursday after more than three weeks in a Taliban detention center. He said he learned of his release during a phone call with Samadi.

News of his release follows mounting pressure from the international community on the Taliban to release the photographer amid circulating reports that he had been handed a death sentence. The Taliban quickly dismissed those rumors in a statement.

“For 23 days, his family couldn’t talk to him. This was the only thing that made me happy after three weeks,” the journalist, who met Samadi in university three years ago, told The Epoch Times in a phone interview from Afghanistan on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal from the Taliban.

U.S. nonprofit the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement late on Thursday welcoming the news.

“CPJ welcomes the release of photojournalist Morteza Samadi from a Taliban detention facility, where he should have never been detained in the first place. CPJ reiterates its call on the Taliban to cease targeting journalists for their work,” the New York-based organization wrote on Twitter.

Elias pushed back against the Taliban’s public narrative for arresting the photojournalist, saying that he believes Samadi had long been on the group’s radar for his previous work before the terrorist group seized control of Kabul on Aug. 15.

“I think part of the reason they arrested him and they had planned for arresting him was not because of just the protest, he did cover the protest … but the main reason comes from the fact that he was covering the Herat battle before the fall of Kabul.”

Samadi, he said, had previously photographed the forces under Ismail Khan, the former governor of Herat and leader in the Afghan Security forces. He had posted these images on Facebook, Elias said.

“So, from a long time ago, the Taliban knew that this … I think that’s also the reason they were looking for him.”

“‘Spying’ is just a narrative of the Taliban,” he added. “I’ve known him for the past three years. If he was a spy, he would be very rich, not poor with a small camera.”

Elias told The Epoch Times that he believes his close friend was only released due to mounting international pressure and the backlash that followed the death sentence rumors, which originated from local news agency report.

“I was happy, I couldn’t believe that,” he said of Samadi’s release. “But it was a bit strange how they [Taliban] changed their mind suddenly.”

Taliban co-founder Mullah Nooruddin Turabi announced last month that the extremist group will resume carrying out executions and the amputations of hands and feet, as was the practice during the regime’s rule more than 20 years ago.

“They [Samadi’s family] couldn’t even see him or talk to him on the phone call, and there was no assurance that he is alive or not. So, since we know the Taliban from the past that they always executed people, even [though] they announced general amnesty, they are starting killing people,” Elias said.

Local witnesses and residents last month told foreign media outlets that the Taliban hung four dead bodies in a public square in western Afghanistan. An alleged Taliban member told The Associated Press that “the aim of this action is to alert all criminals that they are not safe.”

“I couldn’t trust them [Taliban]. I knew that something is happening to him [Samadi], but if there was no such kind of reaction from the media or hashtags to release Morteza, I think they would have already killed him,” Elias said, adding that he isn’t at this stage aware if his friend was harmed by the Taliban during his time in detention.

Taliban Suppression of Journalists

Elias, who has for weeks been trying to obtain a visa to flee the country, said that he has been left shaken by the ordeal and worried for his life. He said that just hours before speaking with The Epoch Times, someone knocked on the door of his home before quickly leaving.

He said it wasn’t clear whether the individual was a Taliban member, but it comes amid reports that the terrorist group is going door-to-door conducting manhunts, for people on their wanted list, threatening to kill or harm their relatives if they do not surrender.

“That really shook my entire body,” he said, highlighting the dangers and hardship local Afghan journalists now face under Taliban rule. The majority of Afghan journalists are now in hiding, without income, fearing reprisal from the Taliban for their work prior to the takeover, he said.

Elias said he was offered a temporary position with a U.S. news outlet on Wednesday, but he fears retribution from the Taliban.

“I’m so deeply worried about this and whether to accept it or not, but since I’m running out of money, and there is no way to get out, I tell myself—this is the only thing I can do, just accept and just work.”

He told The Epoch Times that the Taliban has recently adopted a three-tier warning “strategy,” for telling journalists to stop reporting on “something that they oppose.”

“That first day will send you an alarming message that you need to step down and stop reporting … but they just alarm you for a second time and the third time, they may raid your house and behead you in front of your family,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing that happened to many journalists … they will just simply come down to your house.”

Elias said that the day after Morteza’s arrest, he began to delete previous posts on Twitter that could make him a potential target.

“Western countries or other countries are not giving a visa for Afghan journalists … journalists are in Afghanistan are running out of money, and yet they cannot get out because even the closest country like Pakistan is not issuing them [a] visa,” he said.

“You feel alone, you’re hiding, and you cannot trust anyone out of your house…that’s the kind of feeling I have, and the Taliban may kill you in your house,” Elias added.

Correction: A previous version of this report misquoted the name of the battle before the fall of Kabul and the name of the forces photographed. The Epoch Times regrets the error.

Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist and currently a news reporter at The Epoch Times. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.