The March 19 murder by a mob of a young woman named Farkhunda outside a mosque in central Kabul grabbed headlines globally. The wave of protests that followed, across Afghanistan and in cities around the world, raised hopes that this case, in all its horror, would be a desperately needed turning point for women’s rights and justice in Afghanistan.
The May 6 verdict in the trial of the men accused of killing Farkhunda crushed many of those hopes.
This case should have been a wakeup call to the Afghan government about the urgent need to do more to tackle violence against women. The 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women signed by former President Hamid Karzai has been largely unenforced and violence against women remains endemic and largely unpunished in Afghanistan. Women’s rights activists had some hope that current President Ashraf Ghani would bring new vigor to the government effort to combat violence against women, but these hopes are fading, not least by the government’s lack of any broader response to Farkhunda’s murder.
The authorities charged 30 men with participating in the killing. In addition, 19 police officers were on trial for dereliction of duty for their failure to protect Farkhunda from her assailants. The trial was a rushed affair, taking only four days. Many defendants did not have legal counsel, there were allegations of coerced confessions and torture that the judge ignored, and only brief video clips of the attack were examined, even though in the days after the attack dozens of photos and clips were posted on social media. Unfortunately, shoddy due process is the norm in Afghanistan, where many defendants go without lawyers, and police typically rely on confessions rather than investigation.
The May 6 verdict dealt with the 30 alleged attackers, leaving the police defendants for a later verdict. Four men were sentenced to death for murder, and eight others were sentenced to 16 years of imprisonment. The remaining 18 were acquitted, reportedly for lack of evidence.
This verdict begs numerous questions about the fairness of the process. Most glaring is the use of the death penalty. Human Rights Watch opposes the use of the death penalty in all circumstances, and its use is particularly troubling in circumstances such as these where due process protections are so weak. The absence of defense lawyers and opportunities to prepare and present a defense make all the convictions suspect.
The trial is also troubling because only 12 people have been found responsible for participation in an attack in which the video footage shows dozens involved. Police say they are still pursuing three suspects, but even if those three are arrested and convicted, most of those who bear some responsibility for Farkhunda’s death will go unpunished. Given the extraordinary amount of evidence available through the video and photos and many witnesses of the murder, a more serious effort by the police and prosecutors should have been able to turn that evidence into solid cases against a larger number of suspects.
It’s another dark day for justice in Afghanistan. But it’s not too late for the government to remember Farkhunda by taking real steps to tackle violence against women across the country.