An Afghan court on Wednesday convicted and sentenced four men to death for their role in the brutal mob killing of a woman in Kabul in March — a slaying that shocked the nation and spurred calls for authorities to ensure women's rights to equality and protection from violence.
The sentences were part of a trial of 49 suspects, including 19 police officers, over the March 19 killing of the 27-year-old woman named Farkhunda who was beaten to death in a frenzied attack sparked by a bogus accusation that she had burned a copy of the Quran.
The trial, which began Saturday, only involved two full days of court proceedings — an unusual swiftness in the slow-moving Afghan judicial system. It was broadcast live on national television, reflecting huge public interest in the case.
Judge Safiullah Mojadedi handed down the four death sentences at Afghanistan's Primary Court in Kabul on Wednesday. He also sentenced eight of the defendants to 16 years in prison and dropped charges against 18. The judge will rule on the remaining suspects — the 19 policemen — on Saturday and their verdicts will be announced on Sunday, Mojadedi said.
The defendants have the right to appeal. The charges included assault, murder and encouraging others to participate in the assault. The police officers were charged with neglecting their duties and failing to prevent the attack.
Those sentenced to death include a peddler who made the Quran-burning accusation that sparked the attack against Farkhunda; a man who threw two large rocks at her; the driver of the car that ran over her and the man who set her body alight.
Farkhunda's brother, Mujibullah, told The Associated Press that her family was angered by the leniency of the court toward the majority of the defendants.
"The outcome of the trial is not fair and we do not accept it — you saw just four people sentenced to death but everybody knows that more than 40 people were involved in martyring and burning and beating my sister," said Mujibullah, who like many Afghans, including his sister, uses only one name.
"Eighteen people have been freed. The court should punish them and that should be a lesson for anyone who would commit this sort of crime, anywhere in our country, in the future," he added.
Farkhunda's killing shocked many Afghans, though some public and religious figures said it would have been justified if she had in fact damaged a Quran. A presidential investigation later found that she had not damaged a copy of the Muslim holy book.
The last agonizing and brutal moments of her life 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 her being punched, kicked, beaten with planks of wood, pushed by police onto a roof and dropped from it, thrown in the street and run over by a car. She then had a lump of concrete dropped on her and her body was dragged along the road outside the mosque were the assault took place and tossed onto the bank of the Kabul River. A crowd watched as her body was set on fire.
The footage also showed policemen largely standing and some even participating in the attack.
The incident sparked nationwide outrage and soul-searching, as well as a civil society movement seeking to limit the power of clerics, strengthen the rule of law and improve women's rights.
Farkhunda's parents addressed the court before the sentences were handed down, asking that the accused be dealt with according to the law.
"Everybody saw what happened and I insist on justice," her mother, Bibi Hajira told the court. "That's all I want."
Afghanistan's judicial system has long faced criticism over its inability to provide the majority of Afghans access to justice. Women especially are sidelined, despite constitutional guarantees of equality and protection from violence, a recent report by the United Nations concluded. The attack on Farkhunda was widely seen as symptomatic of the general low regard for women in Afghan society, where violence against women often goes unpunished.
Some conservative lawmakers have in recent years sought to dilute a law that penalizes violence against women, sparking fears of a rollback in legislative gains since the extremist Taliban were overthrown in 2001.
Activist Barry Salaam, who organized mass demonstrations in the days after Farkhunda's death, said Wednesday's verdicts validated laws aimed at protecting women.
"The trial was far from perfect but it was held in open court, which definitely contributes to the strengthening of rule of law and gives the Afghan people the feeling that at the end of the day, the law does prevail," Salaam said.
But lawmaker Farkhunda Zahra Naderi criticized the judge's decision to separately hand down verdicts against the policemen in the case, saying such a move could foment more mistrust of the police.
Afghanistan's daily drumbeat of violence continued Wednesday with the deaths of two people when the minibus they were travelling in hit a roadside bomb, according to Asadullah Ensafi, the deputy police chief of troubled eastern Ghazni province.
The explosion in Dih Yak district also wounded three people, Ensafi said, blaming the Taliban, who have a significant presence in the region.