Reduced sentences for murderers reveal the rotten heart of Afghan justice

Something’s got to give. EPA/Hedayatullah Amid

In the week that president Ashraf Ghani nominated Anisa Rasouli to be the first woman sit on Afghanistan’s Supreme Court, the same court met in secret to commute the death sentences handed down to four of Farkhunda Malikzada’s killers to 20 and 10 years in prison, and to acquit the men who incited the riot that led to her brutal murder.

Both events have provoked protests. The Ulema Council, a religious body charged with overseeing the compatibility of Afghan laws with Sharia, objected to Ghani’s nomination on the grounds that women could not be judges in capital crimes; her nomination was ultimately blocked in parliament. The protests against the reduced sentence, meanwhile, focused on the lack of transparency in the decision-making process and the acquittal of the men whose false accusations unleashed the wrath of the mob.

Over 45 minutes, Farkhunda was beaten, kicked, punched, stoned, dragged beneath a car, thrown into a dry riverbed and set alight. There has also been harsh criticism of the one year sentence handed to 11 police officers who stood by and failed to protect this young woman.

These events and the protests that greeted them reveal the profound fractures that make Afghanistan a tense and uneasy society. They reveal not only the fragility of women’s security in Afghanistan, but a profound crisis of the Afghan legal and political system.

Normalised violence

The attack on Farkhunda brought home to the residents of Kabul, with its glitzy wedding halls and multiple shopping malls, numerous land cruisers and restaurants with foreign menus, the thin the veneer of “normality” that existed in spite of the regular suicide attacks, car bombs, and the nightly shoot outs to which we residents have become accustomed.

Having been granted access to many families here in Afghanistan, I have seen first hand how some women are cherished by their families, and how some are matriarchs – but even for these strong women are severely constrained in their behaviour, dress and speech. Women students with ambition have asked me how they can persuade their families to allow them to continue to study, explaining that if a maharam (suitable male escort) is not available, they cannot attend lectures, that they cannot take advantage of school trips, or expect to work after marriage.

Physical chastisement has been normalised, and girls can expect to be beaten by parents and siblings for any infringement that would damage their own marriage prospects or those of their siblings, such as talking to a male classmate. Beatings by husbands and in-laws are also commonplace.

That is not to say that all women are beaten, that all men beat, or that only men beat; I know two sisters who brutally beat their brother’s bride and justified their behaviour to me on the grounds that their father had paid $13,000 for her so she should do all of the housework and not expect them to help. The point is merely that such behaviour is sanctioned within this society.

Abuse and harassment in public, on the street and on the campus where I work are also something young and older women have come to expect – not just “give us a smile, darling”, but catcalls of “whore” and explicit accounts what the assailant would like to do to the young woman.

Tragedy and farce

The initial reaction to Farkhunda’s murder was that it was justified because she had insulted the Koran, and the perpetrators felt their behaviour was legitimate enough to boast about it on social media. It was only when it became clear that the accusation was false, and that she had been a devout young woman, that sympathy swung in her favour. Anyone else challenging social norms would still be vulnerable to such attacks.

Standing up. EPA/Hedayatullah Amid

Resistance exists, but the space for it is restricted and the punishment is brutal. One young woman who tried to protest harassment with a street performance, in which she donned metal armour sculpted in the shape of a female torso, was herself attacked after only five minutes. Such protests are seen as attention-seeking, and assumed to be a ploy to create grounds for seeking asylum.

For some, Farkhunda’s murder marked a turning point for Afghan women. The shock and revulsion that convulsed the country led to a demand for justice, in particular for women, who have little or no access to the courts. Farkhunda became a (literal) poster girl for women’s rights activists who, with her family’s consent, took over the traditional male role of burying the body.

However, as with the Paghman rape trial, in which the perpetrators were arrested, tried and executed within two months of the crime, the trial for Farkhunda’s murder revealed a rotten legal and political system.

After Farkhunda’s murder, 49 men were rounded up and brought to trial, and four sentenced to death on the trial’s second day; 19 police were charged with failing in their duty to protect, and 11 were sentenced to one year each, the minimum allowed, while eight were acquitted. The trial was a farce, and like the Paghman trial, hugely political, so of course there were grounds for appeal. But since the appeal itself was held behind closed doors, it is impossible to know what went on, or the reasoning behind reducing the sentences.

The backlashes against the outcome of the appeal and the new court appointment are coming from very different sectors of Afghan society, and it is still the conservatives who have the stronger voice. We will never know what Anisa Rasouli could have done for Afghan women’s access to justice – but the backlash against her nomination speaks volumes about their dire situation.

This article has been updated with the news that the Rasouli nomination has been blocked.