CPJ Demands Release of British Journalist and Colleagues Held in Afghanistan

New York, October 1, 2001
—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia’s recent arrest of Yvonne Ridley, a reporter for London’s Sunday Express newspaper, and two male guides.

Soldiers arrested the group on September 28 near the eastern city of Jalalabad and detained Ridley on suspicion of spying, according to news reports.

Taliban officials claimed that Ridley entered the country illegally, without a passport or visa, reported the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP), a news agency based in neighboring Pakistan that is said to have close links with the Taliban regime.

Ridley had applied for a visa to Afghanistan several times without success, according to the Sunday Express. The Taliban currently bar entry to most foreign correspondents.

The Taliban have admitted holding Ridley for investigation and say she is being treated well, the AIP reported. However, little is known about the condition of the guides, who were identified as Afghans in some news reports.

“Journalists play a crucial role in informing the international community about conditions in Afghanistan,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “The Taliban do a great disservice to the Afghan people by preventing foreign journalists from entering the country and by arresting reporters that manage to circumvent these restrictions.

“We strongly urge Taliban authorities to release Yvonne Ridley and her two colleagues immediately,” Cooper added.

The Taliban have dispatched a special investigation team to Jalalabad, where Ridley is being held in a residential compound, according to AIP reports sourcing Taliban officials. Red Cross workers have visited Ridley and said she appears to be in good condition.

A Taliban diplomatic source in Pakistan told Agence France-Presse that Ridley had disguised herself beneath a burqa—the all-encompassing shroud that is the militia’s mandatory dress code for women. “When someone enters Afghanistan like this we become suspicious they are spies. This is being investigated,” said the source.

Two male BBC journalists also recently entered Afghanistan under cover of burqa gowns. Both managed to enter and leave undetected.

The Taliban’s sensitivities about foreign espionage activities may be particularly acute amid reports that U.S. and British special forces have conducted reconnaissance operations in Afghanistan to prepare for an assault on Osama bin Laden, whom U.S. officials blame for the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
The charge of spying in Taliban-held Afghanistan could carry the death penalty.