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Afghanistan's trial against fear

Unusual public concern over the mob murder of a woman has forced a televised trial that includes police among the accused. Afghan society may be at a turning point for women’s rights and rule of law.

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    Defendants attend a May 3 court hearing in Kabul, Afghanistan. The trial of 49 suspects, including 19 police officers, on charges relating to the mob killing of an Afghan woman began on Saturday and was broadcast live on nationwide television.
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Sometimes a dramatic event can cause an entire nation to pivot for the better. In 1955, for example, the killing of a black boy, Emmett Till, in Mississippi sparked the civil rights movement. In Baltimore, the coming trial of six police officers in the case of the death of Freddie Gray could drive a national campaign to end police abuse. 

A similar event now grips Afghanistan, one that challenges that country’s traditional views of women, its culture of official impunity, and a climate of instability after years of conflict. 

Since Saturday, Afghans have watched with keen interest the televised trial of 49 people, including 19 policemen, accused in connection with the mob murder of a young woman in March. 

The woman, known as Farkhunda and who was a reciter of the Quran, was brutalized in the capital, Kabul, for two hours after a mullah falsely told a crowd that she had burned pages of the Quran. She had only complained to the mullah about the selling of lucky charms outside a mosque. 

Her killing was caught on video and galvanized the nation, sparking protests for weeks. In a sharp break with tradition, a group of women carried her funeral coffin.

“It shocked all of us, people in the entire world, and even our inattentive officials and politicians,” said women’s rights activist Diana Saqib on a TV show. “Probably it was the first time that all vehemently denounced the act with one voice.”

The outcry helped push along an investigation while a new president, Ashraf Ghani, made sure a trial took place quickly to reinforce the rule of law. On the trial’s opening day, Mr. Ghani gave a televised speech reminding Afghans that their country is now “law oriented” and not run by individuals, such as warlords or the Taliban. It is necessary to follow the Constitution, he said, as this will improve social conditions so that “all the people accept each other and come out of the atmosphere of fear....”

The president wants to prevent the common practice of mob retaliation against individuals, especially those wrongly accused. “If we want the rule of law, we must not make judgments prematurely,” he said in another speech. “Do you remember the incident of martyr Farkhunda? Those who made a wrong judgment killed in the most heinous manner a girl who was a reciter of the Quran.”

Afghanistan has made much progress on women’s rights since Taliban rule only 14 years ago. Yet its conservative society still denies many basic rights to girls and women. This trial, especially with police being among the accused, shows a new public willingness to challenge old beliefs and end impunity for those in power. Religious authorities, too, are trying to end the practice of selling amulets at mosques by those who claim they have magical powers. 

The tragedy and its trial have so far served Afghans well by the assertion of new constitutional ideals and a new social cohesion that demands justice and an end to fear, especially among women. 

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