World & Nation

Case raises questions about Afghanistan’s response to sex crimes

Afghan rape
Afghan women attend a protest in Kunduz on Sept. 7 against a high-profile case involving gang rape that shocked the nation.
(Jawed Kargar / European Pressphoto Agency)

A case stemming from rapes that generated national outrage and brought swift convictions for seven assailants might seem like a milestone in Afghanistan, where such crimes often result in punishment for the women, if there is any punishment at all.

Yet the story of four women raped late last month in Paghman, a lake district 20 minutes outside Kabul, illustrates the complications that still surround sex crimes five years after President Hamid Karzai, at the urging of Western allies, enacted a landmark law prohibiting violence against women.

The women were traveling with male family members in two cars on their way home from a wedding Aug. 23 when they were stopped by armed men, some dressed in police uniforms. The assailants forced everyone out of the cars, robbed them of money and jewelry and raped the women, one of whom was pregnant, by the roadside, reportedly within earshot of their male relatives.

Despite his opposition to capital punishment, President Hamid Karzai assured an angry nation that the perpetrators would be put to death. On Sunday, less than a week after arrests were made, a primary court in Kabul condemned seven men to death. The men still have the right to appeal.

To many experts, however, Karzai’s forceful reaction and the swift justice meted out by an often uninterested legal system are not signs of progress. For one thing, the defendants weren’t convicted of rape, but of banditry and adultery. The latter charge also implicates the victims -- though there has been no sign that in this incident that the women will face prosecution.

The case shocked the nation, the experts say, in large part because the women were under the protection of male family members who were overpowered and humiliated – so that the men are widely seen as victims as well.

Wazhma Frogh, a Kabul-based women’s rights activist, said the case was an affront to cultural norms that measure a man’s honor by that of the women in his family. “Men in the society who see women as part of their own honor saw this case as an attack on a man’s dignity,” she said.

Human rights activists say the convictions were unlikely to speed up the many other rape cases languishing in Afghan courts and that the death sentences -- though they calmed public anger -- raised fresh questions about the justice system’s commitment to due process.

Human Rights Watch criticized Afghan authorities, who said the men were not police officers, for allegedly coercing their confessions and offering them little time to prepare a defense. The group also said statements from Karzai’s office demanding the men be executed “further undermined their fair trial rights and the independence of the court.”

“The government’s history of providing justice for rape victims has been so dismal that it is tempting to cheer at any sign of action, including this case,” Heather Barr, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, said in an interview. “But really, this case does more to illustrate the obstacles women seeking justice face than to signal a solution to those problems.”

In Afghanistan, most rape cases occur far from the relatively cosmopolitan capital and usually involve people the victim knows: fathers, cousins, suitors, even religious teachers.

The Paghman case shocked the nation partly because it was perpetrated by strangers and occurred in a district known to most Kabul families as the site of Friday picnics and Persian New Year celebrations.

“It makes me hate my watan,” or fatherland, said Abdol Haq Mansori, a 27-year-old shop owner from Paghman. Of the convicted men, he said: “I would hang them all in public for everyone to see.”

Qamaruddin Shinwari, chairman of the nongovernmental Social Council of Eastern Provinces, said the details of the case appalled the Afghan public. “Rape is always a barbaric act, but this was particularly inhumane,” Shinwari said.

Saeeq Shajjan, a Kabul-based lawyer, said despite problems with the case, the fact that families cooperated with the investigation was a bright spot. “In the past, victims were keeping quiet to protect their family’s sense of pride and honor,” Shajjan said.

Despite questions about the speedy convictions and the lack of rape charges, some Afghans find the verdict to be a long-delayed step toward the implementation of the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, which makes rape a crime. The 2009 law has not been properly enforced, activists say, and last year was the subject of a contentious debate in parliament, with some lawmakers calling unsuccessfully for its protections to be repealed or rolled back.

“This spectacle can’t change the fact that in the vast majority of rape cases -- where there is usually a single victim, and often a rapist the woman or girl knows -- the government’s response is complete disinterest or, even worse, prosecution of the victim for adultery,” Barr said.

Many rape cases are still decided based on local traditions. Frogh and Barr pointed to the recent case of a 10-year-old girl in the northern province of Kunduz who was raped by a religious teacher. With the girl’s family reportedly threatening to kill her as punishment, the teacher said she could marry him to avoid that fate. The girl eventually was sent back to live with her family.

Shinwari said such decisions are made outside the realm of the law.

“If there was true order to our legal system and everyone from the president on down adhered to the letter of the law,” Shinwari said, “then we could bring the perpetrators to justice legally.”

Latifi is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India.

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