The South Asia Channel
Hardly Justice for Farkhunda
It took less than two months for the Afghan judicial system to arrest, investigate, and try 49 men accused of involvement in the killing of Farkhunda, a 27-year-old woman who was murdered by a mob. Justice was swift, but was it thorough?
In a dingy courtroom in Kabul on Monday, eleven police officers were sentenced to one year in prison for failing to protect Farkhunda, a 27-year-old woman who was murdered by a mob after a mullah falsely accused her of burning pages of the Qu’ran. The brutality of the killing — Farkhunda was beaten to death by a mob, her body run over with a car before being set on fire, all in heart of the capital — and the failure of police to intervene repulsed much of Afghanistan, and sparked large-scale protests against the country’s endemic denial of women’s rights. Even the Taliban condemned the lynching. The incident galvanized women’s rights activists who protested in the thousands in Kabul, demanding prompt and thorough justice.
Appeals notwithstanding, Monday’s verdict wrapped up one of the most publicized court cases in recent Afghan memory. It took less than two months for the judicial system to arrest, investigate, and try 49 men accused of complicity in the killing. Twenty-three of them received sentences ranging from one year to death.
Earlier this month, the judge handed down death sentences to four men and sentenced eight others to 16 years’ imprisonment for their role in the lynching. Eighteen were acquitted, as were eight of the police officers that on Monday stood accused of derelict of duty. But while justice was served promptly, as activists had demanded, it was not necessarily thorough.
The swift proceedings bestow the justice system with the honor of being one of the only institutions in Afghanistan that works with speed and efficiency. But that honor, according to some, is a dubious one.Critics are concerned that the rapid convictions are a result of public pressure, and have come at a cost of serious failings in the judicial process.
As human rights activists have pointed out, the court hearings lasted only three days. Defendants were given only a few minutes, if any time at all, to speak individually. And there was no opportunity for defendants to introduce their own witnesses. Even more worryingly, many defendants, including one ultimately sentenced to death, did not have a defense lawyer at trial.
“We now see what has become a pattern in highly publicized cases,” said Ahmad Shuja, an Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government tries to expedite the proceedings to put the issue behind it. That not only adversely impacts due process rights but also demonstrates the lack of seriousness with which the government approaches cases of violence against women.”
The deficiencies evident in the Farkhunda case mimic another recent, highly publicized trial. In October, five men were sentenced to death and swiftly executed for the gang rape of four women two months earlier. Those court proceedings, which also drew criticism for being deeply flawed, were presided over by Safiullah Mujadidi, the same judge who oversaw the Farkhunda trial.
Following the Paghman rape case, as it came to be known, Amnesty International stated concerns that the trial lasted only a few hours, and that some of the suspects alleged they had confessed under torture. Prior to the trial, then-president Hamid Karzai publicly stated that the accused would face the death penalty. Once his successor Ashraf Ghani had assumed office, Amnesty and others appealed to him to order a stay of execution. He chose not to.
At least one of the defendants in the Farkhunda case, Sharaf Baghlani, who was not represented by a lawyer and was sentenced to death, alleged that he had confessed under duress, while others claimed mistreatment in custody. Others who were accused said they were illiterate, and had not understood the confession they signed.
According to lawyers who observed the proceedings, Judge Mujadidi failed to take into account these claims. Afghan law stipulates that confessions or information obtained under torture or mistreatment are inadmissible in court, and according to Shuja, the “judge’s indifferent attitude to the allegations is, in this case, symbolic of the government’s inability to prosecute torturers.” In that context, he says, some of the sentences “fall seriously short of Afghan or international law standards of care and due process.”
Farkhunda’s family, who were present for most of the trial, also criticized the court. In a phone interview, Farkhunda’s brother Mujibullah Malikzadeh Farkhunda (who recently added his sister’s name to his own in tribute) said his family was united in the view that the trial “was a just a show; we do not accept the outcome.”
Mujibullah said the trial’s three-day duration demonstrated that there “was not enough investigation done,” and questioned why police had still failed to arrest some key assailants who were clearly identifiable from video footage of the attack, while others were arrested without any evidence that they were involved.
At trial, some of those ultimately released appeared to have been brought to trial merely on the basis that they worked in shops near the attack. Mujibullah believed that police zealously arrested innocent men in response to the enormous public pressure.
“The people who were released because they were innocent, they were arrested by police just to show that they were achieving something,” said Mujibullah. “These men have family, and the time they were in jail they were eating blood [suffering].”
Wazhma Frogh, director of the Institute for Women’s Peace and Security, saw the case as a wasted opportunity for Afghanistan’s judicial system to demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law and protection of women.
“This is a judicial system that is old, it is run by old men who are not concerned about violence against women,” she said. “This has added to my frustration; we know women’s access to justice is limited and it could have been a big public lesson.”
Others sounded notes of optimism. Kimberly Motley, an American attorney who represented Farkhunda’s family in court and has worked in Afghanistan since 2008, stressed that while there were significant inadequacies in the trial proceedings, it was “the most well-run trial [in Afghanistan] I have ever seen.”
Afghanistan’s justice system must be seen “as a work in progress,” Motley said. In particular, the unprecedented convictions of 11 police officers for failing to render assistance was a “hugely significant recognition by the courts that the community has a legal responsibility to protect its women otherwise there might be criminal consequences,” she said.
“There were definitely monumental flaws in the trial,” Motley added. “However, I hope the judges, police, and the wider community in Afghanistan has learned from this case, and better understand that the laws also exist to protect not oppress women.”
WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images