Death sentences a sign of more justice for women in Afghanistan?

Four men were swiftly condemned to die for participating in the mob murder of a woman in Kabul. But for most Afghan women victims, justice is out of reach.

Allauddin Khan/AP
The father of Farkhunda attends a court hearing in Kabul on Wednesday. The Afghan court convicted and sentenced four men to death for their role in the brutal mob killing of Farkhunda in March.

An Afghan court on Wednesday sentenced four men to death for their role in the brutal mob killing of a woman in Kabul. In a country where violence against women often goes unpunished the ruling was unusually harsh and incredibly swift. Two full days of court proceedings is all it took.

Some have praised the ruling as a landmark judgment in a nation where the courts sometimes force women to marry their rapists or jail them for running away from abusive husbands. Constitutional guarantees of equality and protection from violence often take a back seat to tribal justice. So-called "honor killings" are rarely prosecuted.

But whether Wednesday’s ruling will change much or prove a one-off remains to be seen and experts are hesitant to pronounce the ruling a watershed moment for women’s rights.

“I don’t think Afghan women are going to be bolstered very much by it,” says Bahar Jalali, a gender studies professor at American University in Afghanistan. “I do think it’s an important step, but we still have a long ways to go.”

The March 19 slaying of 27-year-old Farkhunda is perhaps most notable not for its sheer brutality or the bogus accusation that led to it – one of the men sentenced to death said he saw her burn a Koran – but for where and when it occurred: outside one of Kabul’s most popular mosques in broad daylight.

With mobile phones in hand, witnesses captured the last agonizing moments of Farkhunda’s life. They filmed the mob beating her with wooden planks, dropping her from a roof, and running her over with a car as policemen stood by. Some can even be seen participating in the attack. The footage ends with the mob setting fire to Farkhunda’s body on the bank of the Kabul River.

The videos circulated widely on social media. Demonstrations erupted in Kabul within days, amplifying calls for justice and for authorities to do more to ensure women’s safety. Police soon arrested 49 suspects on charges including assault, murder, and encouraging violence. Their trial started on Saturday in what was an impressively efficient – if highly questionable – display of due process.

"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," Barry Salaam, an activist who organized mass demonstrations in the days after Farkhunda's death, told The Associated Press.

A recent report from The United Nations urged the government to strengthen women’s access to justice. Most cases of violence against women are settled through mediation and there are also frequent allegations of corruption and abuse of power.

To be sure, the ruling in Farkhunda’s case was a rare victory for women’s rights activists in Afghanistan. In addition to handing down four death sentences, Judge Safiullah Mojadedi also sentenced eight defendants to 16 years in prison and acquitted 18. The judge will rule on the remaining suspects — 19 policemen — on Saturday and their verdicts will be announced on Sunday, according to the AP.

But for every Farkhunda there are thousands of Afghan women whose final moments will never be seen on YouTube or shared on Twitter. Their abusers are unlikely to ever see the inside of a courtroom, let alone a prison cell or a noose.

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