Mortaza Behboudi's new-found freedom: the story of more than 9 months of campaigning
French-Afghan journalist Mortaza Behboudi was released from prison on 18 October after 284 days in Taliban custody. Since his imprisonment, two days after he entered Afghanistan in January 2023, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has never stopped defending him to the Taliban authorities. Here is the story of nine months of campaigning.
The decision came down on Wednesday 18 October at 10.15am Kabul time. The lawyers appointed by RSF to defend journalist Mortaza Behboudi immediately informed the organisation that the Taliban authorities had finally put an end to the detention of the reporter, who had been held since 7 January in Afghanistan. During the hearing, the Kabul criminal court announced its decision to drop all the charges against him. The journalist has finally been acquitted and released!
"Mortaza Behboudi is finally free and on his way home. This is a moment for which we have worked tirelessly every day for the past nine months, alongside his wife Aleksandra and the entire support committee coordinated by Solène Chalvon-Fioriti, Rachida El Azzouzi and Antoine Bernard. We would like to thank the thousands of people who joined us to help bring this project to a successful conclusion. We look forward to seeing him as soon as he lands in Paris to share in the joy of his new-found freedom.
The circumstances of the arrest
On 5 January 2023, more than a year and a half after the Taliban took power, the journalist (see biography below) arrived in Afghanistan, his native country. Two days later, on 7 January, Taliban security forces arrested him as he was about to collect his press accreditation and detained him at PD3 (Police District 3) police station in Kabul.
On Saturday 14 January, the organisation's assistance desk received a missed call indicating Mortaza Behboudi's mobile phone number, but the caller left no message. A few hours later, RSF learned from his wife, Aleksandra Mostovaja, that the French-Afghan journalist had been arrested and detained.
A few days later, on 19 January, the journalist was transferred to the prison of the Taliban intelligence service (the General Directorate of Intelligence, GDI) and appeared to be accused of espionage. He was then held for more than 9 months in particularly harsh conditions.
In order to activate levers to try and obtain his rapid release, RSF initially tried to maintain the utmost discretion. Intense mobilisation was organised, but without public communication, for almost a month.
On 6 February, RSF launched a public support campaign to send a message to the Taliban: Mortaza Behboudi must be reminded and made to understand that he is a journalist and has no place behind bars. RSF is coordinating the drafting of an open letter denouncing Behboudi's aberrant imprisonment and calling for his release. Fifteen French media and production companies signed the appeal.
Three days later, the organisation announced the creation of the #FreeMortaza support committee. On its first day, the committee brought together more than 200 people - editors, representatives of associations, colleagues and friends of the detained journalist. The support committee is coordinated by Antoine Bernard, Rateb Noori and Chloé Le Goff of RSF, Rachida El Azzouzi of Mediapart, Solène Chalvon-Fioriti, a freelance reporter specialising in Afghanistan, and Mortaza's wife, Aleksandra Mostovaja. Several journalists who have worked with Mortaza, such as Dorothée Olliéric, a senior reporter at France Télévisions, are also contributing to this active gathering of support.
The committee is initiating and supporting a number of actions: a complaint lodged on 24 February by RSF with the United Nations special rapporteurs; the organisation and sponsorship of a number of events, such as a solidarity concert in Paris to mark the 100 days of Mortaza's captivity; and the launch of a petition that attracted more than 14,000 signatures in just a few days. The media are getting involved by relaying the call for Mortaza's release, particularly on the 7th of every month, the anniversary of his arrest. The hashtag #FreeMortaza is gaining ground.
On 6 July, to mark the sixth month of Mortaza's imprisonment, RSF unveiled a giant counter on the façade of Paris City Hall to signal the departure of a boat from the port of Douarnenez to symbolically pick him up in Kabul. Douarnenez, in Finistère, is Mortaza Behboudi's hometown, and the whole town is mobilising for his release. This is public mobilisation, designed to send the right messages to the Taliban regime about his status as a journalist and the importance of his case.
“Behind the doors" efforts
From the very first days of Mortaza Behboudi's detention, RSF has been investigating to establish who is holding the journalist, in what conditions and for what reasons, at a time when the regime officially claims not to be holding him. The information obtained quickly contradicted the official version.
The organisation managed to establish contacts within the Taliban regime, thanks to its local networks. RSF has been active in Afghanistan for many years. RSF supported a centre for the protection of Afghan women journalists before the Taliban returned to power. The first contacts with the Taliban date back more than ten years.
Direct contacts within the government in Kabul were made every week from Paris until a few days ago. On several occasions, the release of Mortaza Behboudi seemed attainable and even probable, before failing. In coordination with the support committee, Solène Chalvon-Fioriti regularly visits the site.
The organisation's uninterrupted contacts with regime officials and the numerous items of information passed on to the judges via the lawyers helped to convince them of Mortaza's journalistic activity and that his detention could no longer be justified.
During these nine months, there were constant exchanges with the French authorities and regular exchanges with the European Union and the United Nations in New York, Geneva and Kabul.
Developments in the judicial situation
For 6 months following his arrest, the Franco-Afghan journalist was held in difficult conditions: the procedure was opaque and the outcome uncertain. But the efforts of the international community and the various exchanges with the local authorities finally paid off. At the end of July, Mortaza was transferred to Pul-e-Charkhi prison. He was then able to telephone and contact his wife, Aleksandra, almost every day.
It was at this time that the judicial phase began, before the Kabul Criminal Court, an ordinary criminal court. RSF was able to appoint two Afghan lawyers to defend him and gain access to the case file.
On 7 August, the first hearing confirmed that the charge of undermining state security had been dropped. Mortaza Behboudi avoided a possible trial before the State Security Court. However, he remained liable to charges of espionage, defamation and inciting hatred against the Islamic Emirate.
Four further hearings are required, on 18 and 25 September and 7 and 18 October... before the judges decide on his release.
An atypical background
A child of war, Mortaza Behboudi had a taste for journalism from an early age. Born in 1994 in the village of Behsud, in the central province of Wardak, he was just two years old when the Taliban took power in Afghanistan. His family had to flee the country and took refuge in Ispahan, Iran, where they lived in difficult conditions. The young boy's vocation for photojournalism was born in 2009, when he documented the protest movement against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In 2012, he returned to his native country to study political science, while continuing his career as a photojournalist. But his work is disturbing. Threatened, he fled to France in May 2015, where, after sleeping rough for several weeks, he was taken in by the Maison des journalistes in Paris. Mortaza Behboudi then founded the Guiti News website with fellow exiles, a medium to "talk about migration in a different way", supported by the French Ministry of Culture. He went on to work with a wide range of media, including France Télévisions, TV5 Monde and Arte, as well as the Radio France group, the Mediapart news website and the Libération and La Croix dailies. He became a naturalised French citizen in 2020. For Solène Chalvon-Fioriti, "Mortaza is a humanist and a joyful man, in life and at work. He's a colleague who's accessible in the field, who thinks he's on an equal footing with the people he's interviewing. That's not so common in the profession".
His work has been recognised by his peers on several occasions. In 2022, he contributed to the report Des petites filles afghanes vendues pour survivre, broadcast on France 2, which won the Bayeux Prize for war correspondents. His series of reports, À travers l'Afghanistan, sous les Talibans, published on Mediapart, won the Varenne prize for the national daily press. He produced this work with his colleague Rachida El Azzouzi, an active member of the support committee for Mortaza's release.
These awards, hailed by his peers, also recognise the hard work of a man who is passionate about his work, as Mortaza's wife, Aleksandra Mostovaja, told RSF: "Mortaza is a generous, altruistic and determined man. He has always wanted to help people through his reporting. After his France 2 documentary on Afghan girls who had been sold, he made sure that every one of them could return to their families. Being a journalist is not a crime. We need him."