Four men have been sentenced to death over the murder in March of a 27-year-old woman who was lynched by a mob in the centre of the Afghan capital Kabul.
The death of the woman, called Farkhunda, shocked Afghans for its brutality and spurred calls for authorities to uphold women’s rights to equality and protection from violence. She was beaten, then her body was burned and thrown in a river in a frenzied attack sparked by a bogus accusation that she had burned a copy of the Qur’an.
Forty-nine people are standing trial and on Wednesday judge Safiullah Mojadedi handed down sentences for 30 people. In addition to the four death sentences, he sentenced eight defendants to 16 years in prison and acquitted 18. Charges included assault, murder and encouraging violence. The defendants can appeal against the verdict.
Mahmoud Hamidi, brother of one of the acquitted, said on the steps of the court minutes after the trial: “Some people in the area where the incident happened told the police that my brother was part of the mob. But during that time, my brother was working at his shop. Some women testified to that at the trial.”
Public outrage following the murder has prompted the Afghan government and the court to act with rarely seen swiftness. .
“It was rushed,” said Abdulhakim Qayoumi, a defence lawyer who observed the proceedings. “That is my main concern.”
The family of Farkhunda was also dissatisfied with the process. “The main criminals have not been arrested,” said Mohammad Nader Malikzadah, her father, who spoke to the court before the verdict.
Malikzadah said the police had, for instance, arrested and subsequently released a man who drove over Farkhunda’s dead body with his car. “We don’t accept today’s trial, it was unjust,” he added.
Shinkai Karokhail, an MP assigned by the president to observe the trial, said she was dismayed by the acquittal of 18 defendants. “Even if there was no very clear evidence against them, they should be punished,” she said. “As responsible citizens, how could they just watch a woman being killed by a group of men? It should be a lesson to others.”
The remaining 19 defendants are police officers accused of neglect of duty. A decision in their case is expected on Sunday.
For many, the murder of Farkhunda has become emblematic of the discrimination and lack of legal protection for women in .
Her last hours were captured on mobile phone cameras by witnesses and those in the mob that attacked her. The videos of the assault circulated widely on social media. They showed Farkhunda – who, like many Afghans, went by only one name – being beaten, run over with a car and burned before her bloodied body was thrown into the river.
“It’s very alarming that after 13 years [since the ousting of the Taliban], the mentality of people has not changed towards women,” said Samira Hamidi, an activist from Afghan Women’s Network who attended the trial.
The prosecution has also been a test for the new Afghan government, which has pledged to improve transparency and fight endemic nepotism and corruption.
“It’s definitely about Farkhunda, it’s definitely about her family,” said Kimberley Motley, an attorney who represented Farkhunda’s family. “But to some extent, this has also put the Afghan legal system on trial.”