(Kabul) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai should refuse to sign a new criminal procedure code that would effectively deny women protection from domestic violence and forced or child marriage, Human Rights Watch said today. The new law passed both houses of the Afghan parliament and is expected to be sent to Karzai for final signature into law within weeks, if not earlier.
The law would prohibit judicial authorities from questioning the relatives of a criminal defendant, effectively silencing victims of domestic violence and forced or child marriage and their family members who have witnessed abuse. This would make prosecutions of abusers extremely difficult.
“President Karzai should reject a law that will effectively let batterers of women and girls off the hook,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Should this law go into effect, Afghan women and girls will be deprived of legal protection from relatives who assault, forcibly marry, or even sell them.”
Article 26 of the draft criminal procedure law, “Prohibition of Questioning an Individual as a Witness,” states that “The following people cannot be questioned as witnesses: … 4) Relatives of the accused.” The Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan parliament, passed a version of the law in May 2013 that included this wording. In January 2014, the upper house of the Afghan parliament, the Meshrano Jirga, responded to the concerns of rights activists by revising the title of the article to read “Prohibition of Forced Questioning of a Witness.” That rewording aimed to ensure that the law would only prohibit family members from being compelled to be witnesses, yet still permit voluntary testimony by family members. However, a joint parliamentary commission convened to broker a mutually acceptable version of the law decided to use the original lower house wording which unequivocally bars testimony by family members.
The new criminal procedure code poses a serious threat to critical protections for women and girls embodied in Afghanistan’s groundbreaking Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW), passed by presidential decree in 2009. The EVAW law provided new criminal penalties for various abuses including rape, child marriage, forced marriage, domestic violence, sale of women and girls, and baad, the giving of girls to resolve disputes between families.
Presidential signature on the procedural law would be in clear contradiction to the government’s publiccommitment to women’s rights and to the EVAW law in particular at Afghanistan’s second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations on January 27, 2014. The UPR is the process for assessing the human rights records of all UN member countries. The head of the Afghan government’s UPR delegation, Dr. Mohammad Qasim Hashemzai, stated in his opening remarks that his government “stands committed to promoting and protecting human rights, in particular women’s and children’s rights.” He noted that government rights achievements included steps to enforce the EVAW law through “special EVAW prosecution offices.”
Context: ongoing rollback of protections for women and girls
The proposed criminal procedure law ban on testifying against relatives follows several other efforts by the Afghan parliament to weaken already inadequate legal protections for women’s rights.
Members of parliament opposed to women’s rights have sought to repeal or weaken the EVAW law. A Wolesi Jirga debate over the EVAW law in May was halted after 15 minutes when lawmakers argued for repeal of the law, calling for elimination of the minimum marriage age for girls, abolition of shelters, and ending criminal penalties for rape. In July, a newly appointed member to the official Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission called for the EVAW law’s repeal. Although government enforcement of the EVAW law has been slow and uneven, it has been an invaluable tool for fighting violence against women.
Other troubling developments for women’s rights in 2013 included attacks on and killings of high-profile female government and police officials, and a reduction in the number of seats set aside for women on the country’s 34 provincial councils.
In November 2013, a draft law prepared by Afghan officials that would have reinstated public execution by stoning as a punishment for adultery was stopped after being leaked to the media.
At the July 2012 Tokyo Conference, international donors pledged US$16 billion in development aid funding to Afghanistan over the coming years. In return, the Afghan government committed to a set of goals that laid out in a document called the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework. One of these commitments was “Demonstrated implementation, with civil society engagement, of… the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law (EVAW), including through services to victims as well as law enforcement, on an annual basis.” In advance of a follow-up meeting to the Tokyo Conference in July 2013, donors pressed for a report from the Afghan government on its enforcement of the EVAW law. The government has not yet delivered that report to donors. Deputy Minister of Women’s Affairs Mezghan Mostafawi announced at the January 27, 2014 UPR session that the report launch would occur on January 29. That date has now passed without release of the report.
“President Karzai should take a stand for Afghan women by sending the new law back to parliament with a message that he will not sign it until it is revised in line with the goals of the EVAW law and Afghanistan’s obligations under international law,” Adams said.