Asia-Pacific, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

Death Penalty Returns to Haunt Afghanistan

Rebecca Murray

KABUL, Dec 16 2011 (IPS) - While Afghanistan’s violent decades-long war has claimed thousands of lives, the last known state-sanctioned execution was in June under the direct order of President Hamid Karzai.

The Pul-e-Charki prison in Kabul. Credit: Rebecca Murray/IPS.

The Pul-e-Charki prison in Kabul. Credit: Rebecca Murray/IPS.

A lunchtime attack by suicide bombers and gunmen on the Kabul Bank branch in Jalalabad last February was one of this year’s bloodiest. Most of the 40 dead and over 70 injured were members of the Afghan security services, lined up outside the bank to cash in their paychecks. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the incident.

In the subsequent groundswell of public outrage against the two surviving attackers, Zar Ajam from Pakistan and Afghan citizen Mateullah, President Karzai approved their deaths by hanging in Kabul’s notorious Pul-e-Charki prison.

“Karzai was under enormous pressure from the public that these two men should be executed,” says Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International’s Afghanistan researcher. “There were a lot of people talking to the media pushing the government to execute these people, they really wanted to see something to happen.”

Amnesty International says 139 countries worldwide have abolished the death penalty by law or practice. But Afghanistan is not one of them. More than 100 people are currently estimated to be on Afghanistan’s death row, including some women.

“Our biggest concern is the Afghan judiciary is not able to provide a fair trial,” Mosadiq says. “First, a presumption of innocence is lacking. Second, they are not trying testimony or evidence or witnesses. Third, the police are unprofessional and normally use torture to gain confessions from the accused.

“So many people under pressure from torture may falsely confess to a crime they have not committed. Finally, corruption plays a part, and also political pressure and connections as well.”

In 2007, 15 state executions took place. And it is believed that President Karzai bowed to domestic political pressure, especially before his re-election, when he opposed a United Nations resolution for a moratorium against the death penalty in 2008.

“Although Afghan courts continue to impose death sentences, Amnesty International has not recorded executions in the country in the past two years,” the watchdog reported after the June execution took place. “The death penalty was widely used by the Taliban regime until its overthrow in 2001. The new government’s reduction in executions was welcomed by the abolitionist movement as an encouraging sign.”

Shabeer Ahmad Kamawal, director of the International Legal Foundation of Afghanistan (ILF-A), which provides pro-bono defense services for criminal detainees, claims the judicial process was unfair in one of their murder cases.

He believes in the innocence of their client, Mohammed, now on death row, who was embroiled in a violent dispute with his brother Hakim in a marriage arrangement between their children. According to Kamawal, Mohammed’s five sons killed Hakim and one of his sons in the street, and then fled. Mohammed and another son, at home during the crime, were arrested and tried for the murders instead.

“The fact is that the main doers were not found, and penalties were given to innocent people,” says Kamawal.

“Officially we don’t have a death penalty abolition campaign, but we can talk with the judge about turning the death penalty to life imprisonment,” he adds. “Abolition is not a priority right now. When you do a campaign it takes a lot of effort, and now the people won’t welcome it.”

While the central government in Kabul works to implement a national rule of law system, traditional justice is still practised, especially in rural communities.

In a high profile case last month, a widow and her daughter in eastern Ghazni were publicly stoned and shot by armed men, believed to be affiliated with the Taliban, for “moral crimes” while community members watched.

In July, the killer of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother and Kandahar’s major controversial power broker, was dealt an especially swift and brutal punishment.

Bodyguard Sardar Mohammad shot Karzai to death at close range in his office, before being killed by other bodyguards in the compound.

“It was shocking,” says Horia Mosadiq. “I was disgusted when President Karzai said the Taliban killed his brother, but that he had forgiven his killer. How could he forgive him because he was immediately killed, hung on the back of a police car and then in the bazaar.”

Mosadiq says it reminded her of the infamous murder in 1996 of the former Afghan president Najibullah, who was pulled from exile in a United Nations guest house by the invading Taliban, dragged through the streets and then publicly hung.

Mohammad Farid Hamidi, a commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), says he isn’t aware of local activists working specifically on ending the state-sanctioned death penalty, and that the AIHRC’s position is complex.

“On one side the people support it, and it’s in the context of Afghan religious and cultural issues, as well as the constitution and the criminal code,” he says.

“However, with the current status of rule of law, where there is corruption in the government, policing, the judiciary, and culture of impunity, the big concern for AIHRC is how to apply fair trials for the death penalty,” he says.

“The official stance therefore is the AIHRC asks the president and government for a moratorium, so they can stop corruption, strengthen the judiciary and government mechanisms.”

“For a long time it seemed there was an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty by the government,” says Human Rights Watch researcher Heather Barr. “But the Kabul Bank attackers was an exception to that. We don’t know if this is an isolated incident or return to using the death penalty more broadly.”

*Names in the ILF-A case have been changed to protect the client’s identity.

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