When the executions came, they happened so quickly that they were over almost before the world noticed. On November 19, Afghanistan's presidential palace announced that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had signed execution orders for 16 prisoners previously sentenced to death. On November 20, eight men were hanged, followed by another six the following day.
The executions weren't kept secret though. The presidential palace sent emails to journalists with photos of the executed men and descriptions of their crimes. "Eight criminals who committed crimes against the people, especially women and children are hanged by the Presidential Order today[.]" the media statement read. "By applying this [penalty], the rule of law is implemented. This is a lesson to be learned."
The executions were a shock largely because there have been so few in Afghanistan since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban. The Taliban gained global notoriety for their public executions, including by stoning, sometimes of women, for crimes including "immorality." In contrast, Karzai seemed eager at first to use restraint in applying the death penalty to demonstrate a commitment to a kinder, gentler Afghanistan in step with Europe and other partner countries where the death penalty has been banned.
Under Afghan law, the president must personally authorize every execution. Between 2001 and 2007, Karzai did so only once, a single execution in 2004. In 2007, however, 15 prisoners were executed by firing squad. A gruesome 2011 attack at a bank in the eastern city of Jalalabad, in which 38 people were killed, led to the execution four months later of two men convicted of staging the attack. The 14 people executed on November 20 and 21, though, nearly doubled the number of government-sanctioned executions in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.
The November hangings raise important questions about the trajectory of respect for human rights in Afghanistan as the international military engagement in the country steadily winds down. Like the 2007 executions, which also led to international condemnation, the November hangings may, in retrospect, be an isolated event with little relevance to any broader government policy shift on human rights.
However, unlike 2007, these most recent executions occur amid other indications that the Karzai government is retreating from its domestic and international obligations to protect human rights. Karzai has been increasingly eager to stand up to the international community, to demonstrate that he is his own man and to play to an Afghan audience. This has too often taken the form of presidential positions detrimental to human rights. And for the more than 250 prisoners on Afghanistan's death row, the price for the Karzai government's retreat from respect for human rights may well be their lives.
The Afghan government described the men executed on November 20 as perpetrators of particularly severe crimes, including violence against women and children. According to the government's documents, their crimes included murder, rape, sexual assault, kidnapping and robbery. Official information released about the executions indicated that all those executed had committed crimes resulting in the death of others.
On the second day of executions, the presidential palace described the six men executed as all belonging to the Taliban and as having been convicted of crimes including planning suicide bombings, kidnapping, and assassinations.
Afghanistan's penal code, adopted in 1976, permitted use of the death penalty by hanging for a wide range of crimes, including an expansive set of crimes against internal security, interference with transportation leading to great injuries, arson-related offenses, a number of circumstances resulting in death — including some situations in which intentional killing is not an element of the crime, murder accompanied by any one of a broad range of aggravating circumstances, and "zina or pederasty" that results in death. Zina is a term for sexual relations between two people who are not married to each other.
An amendment to this law by presidential decree was published in Afghanistan's official gazette in solar year 1370 (approximately 1992 &151; the solar year in Afghanistan begins and ends in March — it is currently 1391). The amendment narrowed the number of offenses punishable by death under Afghan law to five offenses: intentional murder, mass murder, causing an explosion that results in death, murder committed during the commission of robbery and crimes in which the land or territory of Afghanistan in whole or in part fall under control of a foreign state, undermining independence and territorial integrity.
The November executions led to swift outcry from the international community, with the EU and France[French], among others, simply denouncing the use of the death penalty in all circumstances. Others, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI), also cited specific concerns about the ability of the Afghan justice system to ensure fair trials and due process, including in capital cases. The statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights pointed to a global trend toward abolition of the death penalty, expressing frustration that these executions came only two days after a record 110 countries voted for a UN General Assembly resolution calling for the abolition of the death penalty.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), a well-respected body that is part of the government yet independent, also raised concerns about due process. "The death penalty is an irreversible punishment," an AIHRC investigator said. "We haven't had full access to these cases ... Still we cannot say if their trials were fair."
The US, Afghanistan's main military and aid partner, weighed in as well, but in a manner so muted that it was disappointing to rights groups. That is hardly surprising given the continued use of the death penalty in the US. "We, of course, urge the government of Afghanistan to uphold its international human rights obligations, including the protection of due process and fair trial in courts of law," a US State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, told reporters. When asked whether he was satisfied that the legal process had been fair in these cases, Toner said: "Those are the kinds of questions that we ask when we look at these things. But, obviously, these were decisions carried out by Afghan courts consistent with their own legal process."
One other group expressing outrage at the executions, prior to confirmation of the executions on the second day, was the Taliban. Through a statement, the Taliban alleged that their fighters were not criminals but rather prisoners of war who should be protected from execution. The statement contained a plea to international organizations:
[T]he Islamic Emirate is gravely disturbed and regarding it urges the United Nations, Islamic Conference, International Red Cross and every other international human right organization to prevent this action of the Kabul administration because, may Allah forbid, if such a plan was in the works then as representatives of human rights, they should not remain neutral and immediately assist in its prevention.
The statement also contained a threat of revenge:
If the mentioned plan was to materialize where our war prisoners are executed then it will surely carry with it a heavy repercussion for the lawmakers, courts and other related circles of the Kabul administration whereby no side will have the right to object and point fingers at us.
But the Afghan government's recent execution spree isn't the only hint of Karzai's drift to less-than-friendly policies regarding human rights. In March 2012, Karzai endorsed a set of principles from a religious council that characterized women as secondary to men, called for gender segregation in public as well as during education and employment and appeared to endorse violence against women under some circumstances.
This year has seen a long battle between Karzai and the US (and more recently the UK, as well) over Karzai's demands that all prisoners held in Afghanistan by foreign forces be handed over to the Afghan government immediately — in spite of serious torture [PDF] concerns that have yet to be effectively addressed by the Afghan government. A debacle regarding appointment of commissioners has severely crippled the work of the AIHRC for a year now. A report prepared by the AIHRC detailing human rights abuses in Afghanistan pre-2001 has been suppressed with the president's approval. Increasing efforts to limit freedom of speech and of association have raised concerns that Afghanistan's flourishing media — one of the few clear human rights success stories in the country since 2001 — could be in jeopardy.
A spokesman for Afghanistan attorney general's office alluded to anti-western attitudes in defending the executions. "Afghanistan has its own judicial system, and there is no place for foreign interference," Basir Azizi said. "The Afghan constitution allows capital punishment."
The death penalty is very popular in Afghanistan, with even Afghan human rights organizations reluctant to speak out against it. Just one example is a Deutsche Welle article in Dari (one of Afghanistan's national languages) about international opposition to the executions that attracted well over a hundred comments from Afghans, the vast majority strongly supporting the executions. Many also expressed frustration with international criticism. In the words of one commenter who wrote in English: "I am not surprised if these INHUMAN and TERRORIST Organizations (Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) support criminals and want Afghan Government to stop their execution. In fact, all Afghan people welcome this intervention of the Government."
Karzai, confronted with an end-of-2014 deadline for the withdrawal of international combat troops, and a sharp decline in international aid, faces the challenge of plotting a path forward in a new context in which Afghanistan's links to the west are significantly weakened. Although he will finish his term as president in 2014 and is barred from re-election by term limits, most election watchers expect him to play a major role in choosing his successor. His recent actions, including the 14 hangings, raise the specter of a future Afghanistan in which enthusiasm by the Afghan government for human rights is a trend that has come and gone.
Heather Barr, a lawyer, is the Human Rights Watch researcher for Afghanistan. She is based in Kabul.