In a tense, emotive demonstration outside a Kabul courtroom on Sunday, Afghan men and women marched, chanted and held up slogans reading “We defend our sister. We defend our honor”, “Raping women is raping the nation” and “We demand justice from the government.” Justice, in the form of seven death sentences for the alleged perpetrators of a horrific gang rape, was quickly discharged the same day. The social outcry surrounding the trial represents the biggest public reaction to a rape case in the country's modern history, and one of the select occasions since the fall of the Taliban that the government has endorsed capital punishment.
The seven men were found guilty on September 7 of armed robbery and adultery — not rape — in connection with an incident that took place in the capital in late August. The men — publically identified by their burkha-clad victims — are expected to be hanged shortly, although the verdicts are not final and can be appealed. Three other suspects are on the run from police. International rights organizations are concerned that emotions and populism have overrun due process in the case.
According to the widely accepted version of the Pghman incident, on August 23 a group of ten people stopped two vehicles consisting of eight women and two men in the Paghman district of the capital. The assailants took four of the women hostage, beating and raping them. Fearing ostracization, the family of the women took them to a nearby hospital without informing the police. The case was not opened until one of victims died in the hospital. The family were on their way back from a wedding at the time of the attack.
When the story broke at the beginning of the month, it immediately went viral, with the #Paghman hashtag appearing all over the Afghan Twittersphere.
Afghanistan-born British MP Rohullah Yakobi tweeted that the reason behind the family's silence was “protecting their honor”.
— Rohullah Yakobi (@kohnadeh) September 2, 2014
Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who critics have accused of playing to the gallery as he considers life after the end of his presidential term, quickly lent his support to capital punishment for the men:
Mujib Mashal tweeted Karzai's quote:
1. President Karzai, on Paghman rape case: “I am against hanging/executions, you know it, and I have always stood against them.”
— Mujib Mashal (@MujMash) September 7, 2014
2. Karzai: “But for the perpetrators of Paghman – I asked them to be arrested swiftly, and I ask the court to order their hanging”
— Mujib Mashal (@MujMash) September 7, 2014
Journalist Ahmad Shuja reflected on the ancient nature of the punishment, which along with stoning, had been a key feature of Afghanistan's justice system under Taliban rule:
Akmal Dawi posted a picture from the court proceedings on his Twitter account:
Civil society groups also demanded to bring the perpetrators to justice by rallying across cities and provinces. Zheela Nasari tweeted:
Coverage of the gang rape even spurred a grim rallying cry in Afghan penal colonies:
Prisoners in Afghan jail: “If the perpetrators of the Paghman gang rape are not hanged, we will kill them here when they are imprisoned.”
— Afghan Daily (@AfghanDaily) September 7, 2014
While Heather Barr, a researcher on women's rights for Human Rights Watch, worried about the speed of the verdict:
The Paghman rape case is a serious test of Afghanistan's justice system – and it is failing. Due process is for all crimes, for all accused.
— heather barr (@heatherbarr1) September 7, 2014
Police Chief General Zahir Azimi, confirmed that the convicted had been previously arrested for a number of serious crimes. However, due to corruption in the Afghan legal system, he said, they had been released.
Although many will have concerns about Afghanistan's evident appetite for the death penalty, others will point to the march through Kabul and subsequent demonstration at the courthouse as an extraordinary show of public opposition to rape crimes. More often than not, when rapes occur in Afghan society, the victims are thrown in jail or asked to marry their abusers. Other crimes against women are also not punished. When Sahar Gul was tortured to death by her husband and in-laws, her in-laws walked free.
Even more remarkable than the demonstration, however, was the fact that the women themselves — along with another woman allegedly raped by the men three years ago — appeared in the packed court and identified their attackers at close quarters.
As Bethany E. Matta tweeted:
— Bethany E. Matta (@BethanyMatta) September 5, 2014