On September 15, the Kabul Appeals Court turned a blind eye to serious flaws in the handling of the notorious Paghman gang rape case and upheld death sentences for five of the defendants. Two others were sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The crime was indeed shocking. On August 23, a group of men in police uniforms and armed with assault rifles stopped two cars in Paghman district outside Kabul, took money and jewelry from the passengers, and then raped four women, one of whom was pregnant.
The case against the seven accused has been riddled with serious problems from the start, beginning with public statements from President Hamid Karzai’s office urging speedy death sentences. Numerous due process violations – including possibly coerced confessions, little time for the defense to prepare its case, and a brief trial that included no real presentation of evidence – undermined the suspects’ rights to a fair trial and a hearing by an independent court.
The court seemed to engage in legal gymnastics to apply a law that would allow the death penalty. Only very few crimes in Afghanistan permit capital punishment, and even here the penalty does not appear to apply.
Even if the death penalty were applicable, international human rights law only allows its use for the most serious crimes when there is scrupulous adherence to fair trial standards. This case fell far short of those international standards.
The case also highlights the dangers for female victims of sexual violence, who already face severe social stigma in Afghanistan. When police investigators allowed journalists to watch the four victims identify the alleged attackers in a lineup on September 3, it put the victims at risk in a manner that may deter future victims of sexual assault from coming forward.
It’s now up to the Afghan Supreme Court to approve or disallow the sentences handed down by the Kabul Appeals Court on the Paghman defendants. The question is whether Afghanistan’s highest judicial body will fully examine the conduct of the trial that resulted in these sentences. The court should not be a rubber stamp for a judicial process that has denied both victims and suspects of any semblance of justice.