Bashir Ahmad Reyan had been missing for more than two months when his body was discovered last week in Afghanistan's southern province of Kandahar.
The latest in a string of unexplained deaths in the province, Reyan’s case has gained attention because of claims by family members that he was tortured by security forces – and allegations by the government that he was a
Reyan's father was an official in the Taliban government that was ousted in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Friends at Kandahar University, where he was a fourth-year Dari language student and occasional writer for an online news site, said Reyan was not an active member of the insurgency but may have been a "cultural Talib" who supported the group's conservative Islamic views.
The claims and counter-claims illustrate that, in the 15th year of the
Critics of the government say that in the fog of the conflict, it is easy for officials to portray someone as a Taliban supporter – particularly in Kandahar, a traditional haven for the militant group and a place, analysts say, where university students are often surveilled by the government for signs of Taliban sympathies.
Reyan's older brother, Shafiq, told local media that police arrested and tortured Reyan, and claimed he was working with the Taliban, which the family denies. The Taliban's propaganda machine seized on Reyan's death, with pro-Taliban websites and Facebook pages referring to Reyan as a "martyr" and "hero."
In a statement to The Times, Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, denied Reyan's involvement with the group, saying only that he was a student and journalist.
Gen. Abdul Raziq, the powerful police commander of Kandahar, said Reyan was killed in battles between rival Taliban factions that have intensified in recent months in southern Afghanistan. Raziq denies the torture accusations.
Raziq, a longtime U.S. ally in the volatile southern province, holds sway over Spin Boldak, the border district where Reyan’s body was found, and his forces have routinely been implicated in abuses of civilians.
The Afghanistan Human Rights Commission reported recently that there have been at least 11 mysterious deaths in Kandahar province in the last two weeks.
"It's not very difficult to simply claim someone is a member of the Taliban – we've seen that hundreds of times in the past," said Waheed Mozhdah, a former foreign ministry official in the Taliban government who knew Reyan's father.
"Just because someone's father or brother was affiliated with the Taliban does not mean he himself is a Talib," said Mozhdah, who is now a political analyst in Kabul.
The competing stories spilled over into media reports, with Reyan being alternately vilified and venerated by opposing sides in the conflict. The Pajhwok news agency, quoting Reyan's brother and former boss, called Reyan a journalist. The news site Khaama Press interviewed local officials who called him a "senior Taliban group member."
Others accuse Reyan of working on several pro-Taliban websites.
"Unfortunately, the fact that Bashir Ahmad was alleged to have Taliban sympathies does seem to have colored the way the media has covered the case," said Patricia Gossman, Afghanistan researcher with Human Rights Watch.
"With the war going as badly as it has been, there is a dangerous temptation to ignore serious abuses if they are committed in the name of fighting the enemy."
Borhan Osman of the Afghanistan Analysts Network Reyan came from a "well-known family within the Taliban ranks." His father, Abdullah Gol, worked in the information and culture ministry during Taliban rule, but was seen as a relative moderate who opposed the group's 2001 destruction of the famed Buddha statues in Bamiyan province.
Osman said Reyan's online writings were not political and that he mainly translated religious and historical texts. He translated nearly 20 books and in the past had contributed articles to the website Khabarial.com.
"I can't be certain whether he was or was not a Taliban, but that's not the issue here," said Mirwais Afghan, the website's editor. "The issue is that the man was tortured, including with electric shock, which is completely against the constitution of Afghanistan."
A Kandahar University student who requested anonymity to shield himself from reprisals described Reyan as "a simple, poor student" who was known as a hard worker. He and Afghan expressed doubts that Reyan had time to work actively with the Taliban.
The Taliban condemned Reyan's death. In a post on the group's official website entitled "Who are The True Enemies of Education?" it accused security forces of abducting Reyan near the university and taking him to a secret prison where he was "subjected to unspeakable forms of torture."
One former Kandahar official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, said the Taliban's veneration of Reyan suggested he was a member of the group.
"This is not the first case of a student being tortured or killed, so if he wasn't of value to them why would the Taliban go to such lengths to honor him and turn him into this symbol?" the official said.
To others, the Taliban was seeking to capitalize on Reyan's death.
"They exploited it as part of their bid to delegitimize [Afghan] institutions," Osman said. "It's part of their media strategy. They want to criticize every group -- from human rights organizations and journalist unions to civil society activists -- for failing to call for justice" for Reyan's death.
Latifi is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India.