A spokesman for the Justice Ministry denied that the government had proposed resuming public execution by stoning for moral crimes, the Associated Press reported.
But Reuters news agency quoted a member of the sharia law committee working on a new penal code, Rohullah Qarizada, as confirming that the ancient punishment was a subject of discussion.
"We are working on the draft of a sharia penal code where the punishment for adultery, if there are four eyewitnesses, is stoning," said Qarizada, who is also head of the Afghan Independent Bar Assn.
Britain's Guardian newspaper also reported that its correspondent in Kabul had seen the text of provisions in the draft penal code defining adultery as a capital crime and calling for public execution by stoning for married offenders.
"Men and women who commit adultery shall be punished based on the circumstances to one of the following punishments: lashing, stoning [to death]," Article 21 of the draft code states, the Guardian reported. It said another section of the proposed code calls for sentences to be carried out in public.
Work on the new penal code, to replace a 1976 version that doesn't include stoning among its prescribed punishments, is expected to take at least two years to complete and bring into force, Justice Ministry official Mohammad Ashraf Azimi told the Associated Press.
"As a member of the department for the punishment laws, I haven't seen this part of the law they are mentioning," Azimi said of the Human Rights Watch complaint. "I don't know where they found it and why they are emphasizing it. We are the people working on it and we haven't seen it."
Human Rights Watch, along with other rights groups and international legal watchdogs, has been monitoring the code-drafting progress for its compliance with Kabul's commitments to treaties and covenants. Among the agreements ratified by Afghanistan that prohibit cruel and inhuman punishment is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
"It is absolutely shocking that 12 years after the fall of the Taliban government, the Karzai administration might bring back stoning as a punishment," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "President Karzai needs to demonstrate at least a basic commitment to human rights and reject this proposal out of hand."
Stoning of adulterers was carried out in public during the 1996-2001 era of Taliban rule, which formally ended with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. But reports of the punishment being meted out in rural areas still under the Taliban's sway have persisted over the past dozen years. Just this past weekend, a couple in Baglan province was shot to death on orders of the disgraced woman's father, the Interior Ministry said in announcing an investigation into the "illegal decision" by local tribal elders.
Adams warned on behalf of Human Rights Watch that international aid to Afghanistan could be at risk if the country resumes the barbaric practices that occurred under Taliban rule.
The Karzai government has been trying to include the Taliban in negotiations on how Afghanistan will be ruled after the departure of U.S. and other foreign troops at the end of 2014. Some observers fear the current Western-influenced government might make concessions to the extremists, like the establishment of strict Islamic law, to keep the peace with political rivals after the withdrawal of the U.S.-led military contingent.
"Donors need to make clear that international support to Afghanistan's government is not a blank check," Adams said. "International aid should generously support health and education and other crucial needs, but donor money shouldn't pay for backsliding to Taliban-era abuses."