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AFGHANISTAN: Death Row Numbers Raise Grave Doubts

Tahir Qadiry

KABUL, Apr 29 2008 (IPS) - By lifting the shroud of secrecy over the number of Afghans on death row – some 100 – the government has ended up raising grave doubts about the trial procedures that led to the extreme sentences.

On Apr.16, the Afghanistan Supreme Court announced it had confirmed death penalties for about 100 convicted of such crimes as kidnapping, hostage-taking, armed robbery, murder and rape. The surprise press statement immediately revived memories of the mass execution by firing squad of 15 inmates on one day last October – without any prior warning whatsoever.

“This is the estimated total number of all death row prisoners in Afghanistan,” Elaine Pearson of the international rights lobby Human Rights Watch (HRW) told IPS. The Supreme Court had not issued the names and locations where the death row inmates were held, she added.

The independent human rights commission of northern Afghanistan confirmed that it had not been provided with additional details. “As soon as we get the names we will disclose them to the media,” Qazi Sayed Mohammed Sami told IPS. He added that the cases would then be “assessed” to see whether internationally-accepted trial standards had been observed.

But some independent legal experts immediately charged that the 100 had not been given fair trials, suggesting that the Supreme Court should have overturned the death sentences.

“All these cases were dealt with in closed trials without observers – and in most cases without legal representation,” Prof. Wadi Safi, an expert on international public law at Kabul University, told Human Rights Watch.

Safi added that it was common practice in regional courts for the accused to be kept in the dark about the evidence against them.

The Washington-based HRW supported his charges. “There seems to be a lack of due process – not only in death penalty cases but also in a lot of criminal cases,” Pearson said.

But officials in the Supreme Court insisted that professional judges had presided over the death penalty cases in “transparent” trials. Abdul Rashid Rashed, a justice on the Supreme Court, rejected any criticism of the Afghan court’s review procedures.

“We have professional staff able to take firm and proper decisions,” he told IPS. All the sentences had passed in accordance with Islamic law.

The Afghan legal system was also recently criticised after the sentencing to death of a young Afghan journalist, Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, last January. He was allegedly guilty of downloading from the Internet and circulating an article critical of the Prophet’s teaching on the place of women in society. The exact details of the case were never clear.

“Kambakhsh didn’t have access to a lawyer. In this particular case, there were concerns expressed by his family that he was threatened and physically beaten while in custody,” Pearson said.

Kambakhsh, originally sentenced to death by a court in the remote northern province of Balkh, has now been transferred to Kabul, according to press reports. Officials of the government of President Hamid Karzai have promised that he will soon be set free.

The Kambakhsh case – taken up by HRW and other western rights organisations – received worldwide publicity as an example of Afghan regional judges ruling in accordance with their extreme, ultra-conservative religious beliefs. In this case, the Internet became a symbol of an alternative Western, secular society.

The unexpected announcement of confirmed Supreme Court death sentences is once again putting the Afghan legal system in the international news.

In 2006, Karzai appointed several new, younger justices to the Supreme Court. They apparently did not have links with the older conservative Islamists. He also nominated Abdul Salam Azimi to the crucially important post of Chief Justice, replacing the conservative Faisal Ahmad Shinwari.

The Supreme Court judges play an all-important role in selecting new judges and issuing legal directives to the lower courts. Expectations were clearly pinned on Azimi, partly educated in the U.S., to push through changes without a wholesale purge of those in office since the overthrow of the Taliban.

Huge amounts of money have been spent on bringing change to the judicial system since U.S.-led and Afghan forces brought down the Taliban in 2001. Afghanistan is now seeking an additional 360 million dollars for its judiciary, Karzai told a USINFO reporter during a visit to Washington last November.

The Supreme Court announcement of the 100 on death row has sparked off a debate on the death penalty in Afghanistan.

Karzai joined this a day after the announcement when he told a press conference in Kabul that he was against the death penalty. This explained why his government was moving slowly on carrying out executions. According to the constitution, a presidential signature is required to issue an order to a firing squad.

“I am happy to hear the Taliban are opposing the executions,” Karzai told the press conference in Kabul on April 16. “I hope they also have mercy on people.”

Ironically, on Apr. 27 Karzai survived a Taliban assassination attempt while attending a military parade in Kabul.

HRW has joined the death penalty debate by urging the President not to sign any future execution orders.

“President Karzai should suspend the death penalty immediately,” Pearson said. “We would oppose the death penalty whether it was in Afghanistan, the U.S. or any other country.”

Pearson said she did not believe any executions were imminent.

“It could be a lengthy process,” she said, adding that knowledgeable experts in Kabul had informed HRW that 15 death row inmates could be executed in 2008 if the president yielded to pressure “from certain powerful individuals”.

Following the Karzai press conference, IPS canvassed views on whether the 100 death row inmates should be granted a reprieve.

“Afghanistan is an independent country so there should be no interference with what the courts have decided. The Afghan Supreme Court has taken right decision in these cases,” Mohammad Usman, a public prosecutor in the city of Mazar-e Sharif, told IPS..

“I agree with these sentences. We have many other criminals in this country who should also be punished in the same way, said Ustad Norollah, a professor at the Balkh University.

A rare voice expressing an opposite view was Arzoo Geso, a student of journalism.

“I am very much afraid of executions,” she told IPS. “I once watched one on TV and could not sleep for many days. I think life-imprisonment is a better alternative to the death penalty.”

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