What Justice? Afghan Court Overturns Death Sentences in Farkhunda Murder


Only July 2 a Kabul judge quietly overturned the death sentences handed in May to four men for the brutal killing of Farkhunda. In March, Farkhunda, a 27-year old woman, got into an argument with Zain-ul Abedeen, who Reuters reported as the caretaker of the Shah-e Do-Shamshera shrine in central Kabul, over his amulet selling. She was accused of burning a Quran and a violent mob murdered her. Dozens of videos filmed with cell phones by bystanders show Farkhunda surrounded, stomped, and beaten bloody by a crowd of men. She was then run over by a car and set on fire, before being thrown in the Kabul River.

The original trial, criticized by human rights organizations for being too quick, took only four days to sentence four men to death, eight men to 16 years in prison, and found an additional 18 men not guilty. A subsequent trial handed eleven police officers one-year terms and set eight others free.

Of the 49 people initially convicted of crimes in relation to Farkhunda’s death, AP reports that 37 have been released ahead of their appeals.

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Then, on July 2, Appeals Court Judge Abdul Nasir Murid overturned the four death sentences and instead gave three of the men 20-year sentences and the fourth a 10-year sentence for the crime that shocked the world. In addition, TOLOnews reports that Omran, a custodian at the shrine,  who had previously been sentenced to 16 years was acquitted.

“It’s not a court, it’s just a show, ” Farkhunda’s brother told BBC Persian, “The media should have been there, we should [have] been there, the lawyers should have been there.”

Shukria Barakzai, a lawmaker and women’s rights advocate, said, “This is against the constitution. The courts should be open to the public, and this closed-door hearing undermines the credibility of the sentences.”

Farkhunda’s murder was particularly violent but it was not necessarily unique. The murky judicial process in Afghanistan, in which sentences are arbitrarily shortened or reversed entirely, is not new. For example, Nadia Anjuman, an Afghan poet, was beaten to death by her husband in 2005. Her husband served a single month in jail for the crime after being given a five-year sentence.

Despite widespread outrage in response to Farkhunda’s murder and sustained international attention to the plight of women in Afghanistan little has changed.

Meanwhile, today the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released an audit report on U.S.-funded rule of law programs in the country. Rule of Law programs focus on developing judicial, corrections, and informal justice systems, working on legislative reform, legal education, anticorruption, and public outreach. At the heart of rule of law initiatives is a simple concept: that laws, not the arbitrary decisions of individuals, should govern.

SIGAR says that the U.S. Departments of Defense, Justice, State and USAID have spent more than $1 billion on at least 66 rule of law programs since 2003 and furthermore, that the agencies “lack a current, comprehensive interagency rule of law strategy to help plan and guide U.S. rule of law development efforts in Afghanistan.”

SIGAR reviewed 6 programs that constitute 59 percent of the total funding spent on rule of law programs, totaling $635 million, and found that all six had significant problems relating to performance management–in essence, the programs were not able to measure the outputs generated by the programs:

Because DOD, DOJ, State, and USAID did not systematically measure and report on their programs’ achievements, it remains unclear what overall outcomes and impact have resulted from the expenditure of more than $1 billion to develop the rule of law in Afghanistan.

While the $1 billion represents a waste of money to the American taxpayer, it represents a cruel misuse of opportunity for Afghanistan, especially Afghan women.

Following a protest Monday, in which dozens of Afghans gathered at the shrine in Kabul where Farkhunda’s horrendous death began, President Ashraf Ghani has promised “to leave no stone unturned in ensuring justice for Farkhunda’s case,” according to Zafar Hashimi, the president’s deputy spokesperson. Perhaps presidential pressure may ensure justice for Farkhunda, but it will take significant reforms, both legal and social, to protect women in Afghanistan. It seems the United States and likely other donors have wasted their time and money.

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