Protesters have once again filled the streets of Kabul, outraged by an appeals court decision to dismiss death sentences against four men convicted of brutally murdering Farkhunda Malikzada.
But the ruling – the latest twist in a deeply flawed judicial process – need not be the final chapter in a case that horrified the world. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani can still push for a full and just accounting of one of the country’s most shocking murders in recent years, and reforms that can help prevent such brutality in the future.
On March 19, 2015, a mob murdered Farkhunda, a student in her 20s, outside a Kabul mosque after she was falsely accused of burning the Quran. The mostly young men beat her, ran her over with a car, and then lit her on fire. Police present at the scene did not act effectively to protect her. We know this because the murder was captured over and over again on cellphone video that was posted on Facebook for all to see.
After a trial that was both rushed and riddled with due process violations, verdicts were announced for 30 men accused of participating in the attack and the 19 police officers accused of dereliction of duty. The court sentenced four of the attackers to death and eight to 16 years of imprisonment. Eleven police officers received one year in prison. Eighteen accused attackers and eight police officers were acquitted.
The initial trial had been televised – nearly unprecedented in Afghanistan – perhaps in response to the widespread calls in Afghanistan and abroad demanding justice. By contrast, the appeal was held in such privacy that Farkhunda’s family learned of it only after the court had reduced the four death sentences with sentences of 10 or 20 years’ imprisonment. When word got out, new protests erupted in Kabul. Ghani appears to have issued contradictory statements regarding whether he will respond to public anger over this decision.
Ghani’s options are constrained by Afghanistan’s constitution, which protects the independence of the courts. The death penalty, which Human Rights Watch opposes in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty, was never the right answer in this case. But that doesn’t mean Ghani is out of options – there’s plenty he could do.
The president could order the police to reopen the investigation and search for remaining attackers who can be seen on the video but have not yet been arrested or charged. He could order disciplinary sanctions, including firing, against all police officers found to have engaged in misconduct in relation to the March 19 events – even if the misconduct did not rise to the level of criminal behavior.
Even more importantly, Ghani could advance systemic reforms that would honor the memory of Farkhunda by helping to prevent such horrific crimes from happening again. He could develop a tough mechanism within the Afghanistan National Police to hold officers accountable for their behavior; none currently exists. He could take real steps to recruit and retain and provide decent working conditions for female police officers – something both he and his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, have failed to do. Most importantly, he could bolster enforcement of Afghanistan’s 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which promised important reforms, but has been plagued by weak enforcement, including by Ghani’s administration.
Nothing will bring Farkhunda back, but there’s much more Ghani should be doing to bring #JusticeForFarkhunda.