Eleven police officers have been sentenced to one year in prison for their role in the mob lynching of a woman in Kabul that caused outrage in and abroad. A primary court judge found the officers guilty of dereliction of duty, while acquitting another eight due to lack of evidence.
The verdict has exasperated Afghans who had hoped to see the government make political strides in defence of women’s rights. Instead, the case has become emblematic of the lack of legal protection for Afghan women, and of a justice system many say is prone to political meddling.
Farkhunda, a 27-year-old religious teacher, was killed by a crowd of angry men in Kabul after an argument with a cleric whom she scolded for selling charms in the street, a practice some regard as un-Islamic.
The cleric retorted by claiming Farkhunda had burned the Qur’an, after which a mob set upon her, beat her to death, dragged her body behind a car and burned it on the riverbanks in the city centre.
Earlier this month, the judge, Safiullah Mujadidi, sentenced four men to death, including the cleric who argued with Farkhunda, and convicted eight others to 16 years behind bars. Eighteen other accused were freed.
The assault was filmed on mobile phones and the footage was widely shared on social media and shown in court. It triggered the largest protests in Kabul in recent memory. Demonstrators wore masks showing Farkhunda’s bloodied face, and re-enacted the murder in front of the shrine where she was killed.
Pressured by public outrage, the court acted promptly, but, according to some, not necessarily justly. The first 30 defendants were sentenced after only three days in court and one day of deliberations. The accused had approximately five minutes to present their case, and not all had access to defence lawyers. Some claimed they were tortured before confessing.
Heather Barr, senior researcher on women’s rights in Afghanistan with Human Rights Watch, said the trial had been done “in a rushed and unprofessional manner, which has denied justice to both Farkhunda and the accused”.
She said: “Real justice would be for the government to change the way that police and prosecutors respond to violence against women, so that there could never be another murder like this. Real justice for Farkhunda would be for the government to take a hard look at how it is possible that a mob can beat to death a woman in the middle of Kabul, while police stand by and let her die.”
Other activists worried that the swiftness of the trial, which saw 26 of the total 49 defendants acquitted, had let some perpetrators off.
“With this culture of impunity, they are providing a safe space for criminals in Afghanistan,” said rights activist Aziz Rafiee. He thought the police had managed to sway the judge.
“How come the police can be sentenced to one year in prison but the ordinary people have been sentenced to execution?” he said, adding that some of the main culprits had not been arrested, and were being sheltered by relatives connected to the government.
Fereshta Kazemi, an actor who like many others followed the trial closely, said: “It’s too lenient. I want to know how they came to this conclusion. I want to know what the piece of evidence is for each policeman.”
She thought the trial had been forced to a conclusion too soon. “When these things are rushed, it seems like the actual pain of Afghan women doesn’t matter,” Kazemi said.
The case has become a political lightning rod. The government has dispatched armed guards to protect Farkhunda’s family, and high-ranking officials have visited to express condolences.
But according to Farkhunda’s brother, Najibullah, the family was not invited to the final court proceedings. When he was informed about the outcome, Najibullah was disappointed. “The police neglected their job, and we expected something else to happen,” he told the Guardian in a succinct phone call.
Many of the capital’s residents shared the family disbelief over the verdict.
“This trial was not decided by the court but by the police department,” said Leyla Ayubi, a 23-year-old trainee teacher. “The trial was interfered with politically, and it was unjust,” she said.
Shafiqa, 25, a nursing student, said the accused policemen should have received at least three years in prison to teach their colleagues that it is their job to defend female victims of violence.
“God damn these policemen who just watched these uneducated people kill an innocent girl,” she said.
Others showed some sympathy for the police after the verdict.
“They need to be punished for job negligence but one year is a lot for them,” said Rahimullah, 27, a labourer. “I think that in the beginning, the police really believed she was burning the Qur’an. That’s why they didn’t interfere.”
Ultimately, the trial has stymied hope that the brutality of Farkhunda’s murder would force the government to stand up for women’s rights.
“Today’s verdict feels like an effort to be seen to be doing something, while sweeping the issue under the carpet,” Barr of Human Rights Watch said.
“Ashraf Ghani [Afghanistan’s president] has missed an important chance to do something meaningful to fight violence against women.”