Justice no nearer in Afghanistan over brutal death of Farkhunda

After a young woman was lynched, the justice system cranked up – then went backwards

Farkhunda had one chance to escape the mob that wanted to kill her. Two Afghan police officers pulled her on to the roof of a low shed, above the angry crowd. But then the enraged men below her picked up poles and planks of wood, and hit at her until she lost her grip and tumbled down.

Her face bloodied, she struggled to stand. Holding her hands to her hair, she looked horrified to find that her attackers had yanked off her black hijab as she fell.

The mob closed in, kicking and jumping on her slight frame.

The tormented final hours of Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year-old aspiring student of Islam accused of burning a Koran in a Muslim shrine, shocked Afghans across the country. That is because many of her killers filmed one another beating her and posted clips of her broken body on social media. Hundreds of other men watched, holding their phones aloft to try to get a glimpse of the violence, but never making a move to intervene. Those standing by included several police officers.


Unlike so many abuses against Afghan women that unfold in private, this killing in March prompted a national outcry. For Farkhunda had not burned a Koran. Instead, an investigation found, she had confronted men who were themselves dishonouring the shrine by trafficking in amulets and, more clandestinely, Viagra and condoms.

At first, the trial and convictions that followed seemed a victory in the long struggle to give Afghan women their due in a court of law. But a deeper look suggests otherwise. The fortune teller who several investigators believe set the events in motion was found not guilty on appeal. The shrine’s custodian, who concocted the false charge of Koran burning and incited the mob, had his death sentence commuted. Police officers who failed to send help and others who stood by received slaps on the wrist, at most.

Some attackers identifiable in the videos avoided capture altogether. Afghan lawyers and human rights advocates agree that most of the accused did not receive fair trials. Farkhunda’s family, fearing reprisals and despairing that the killers would be held accountable, fled the country.

Efforts foundered

Farkhunda’s death and the legal system’s response call into question more than a decade of western efforts in


to instil a rule of law and improve the status of women. The United States alone has spent more than $1 billion (€0.9 billion)) to train lawyers and judges and to improve legal protections for women; European countries have provided tens of millions more.

But like so many other western attempts to remake Afghanistan, the efforts have foundered. Afghan society has resisted more than 150 years of such endeavours by outsiders, from the British to the Russians to the Americans. This remains a country where ties of kinship and clan trump justice, and where the money brought by the West has made corruption into a way of life. The rule-of-law programmes were often designed in ignorance of Afghan legal norms, international and Afghan lawyers say. And western efforts to lift women’s legal status provoked fierce resentment from powerful religious figures and many ordinary Afghans.

Yet Afghan women most need the legal system to defend them: they are largely powerless without the support of male family members, and it is usually family members who abuse them. "Where is the justice?" asked Mujibullah Malikzada, Farkhunda's elder brother, as he sat in a sparsely furnished apartment in Tajikistan. "In my Islamic country, a girl was disrespectfully, dishonourably lynched and burned, and what has happened? We have left our home. They never caught all the people. What are we to do?"

As a last resort, Farkhunda’s family has appealed to the Afghan supreme court, which has wide power to impose new sentences or order a new trial. The decision is pending. “If she gets justice, all women in Afghanistan who were harmed or killed or abused get justice,” said Leena Alam, an Afghan television actress who found herself joining hundreds of women at Farkhunda’s funeral, defying tradition by carrying the coffin. “If she doesn’t, then all these years of the international community being here, all the support they gave, all the money, this whole war, means nothing. It all went to waste.”

Farkhunda first visited the Shah-Do Shamshira shrine – named for a foreign warrior who is said to have helped bring Islam to Afghanistan – four weeks before her death. It was a Wednesday, women’s day at the shrine, when men are not allowed.

The women commiserate about their lives. They visit the fortune teller to buy amulets to help them get pregnant, find a husband or have male children. Known as tawiz, the amulets usually consist of writings on a small piece of paper that a woman can pin to her clothing or keep in a pocket.

Farkhunda was appalled at the way the women’s superstitions were being exploited, her brother Mujibullah recalled. She confronted the custodian, Zainuddin, and the fortune teller, Mohammad Omran, saying: “You are abusing the women. You are charging them money for something that is not Islamic, that is not religious.”

As the atmosphere at the shrine became tense, Mujibullah said, “The custodian said to Farkhunda: ‘Who the hell are you? Who are you to say these things? Get lost.’”

The Malikzadas are an educated family. Farkhunda’s father, Mohammad Nader Malikzada (72), worked for nearly 40 years as the lead engineer for Afghanistan’s public health ministry, keeping its medical technology, such as it was, running. Mujibullah had a job at the finance ministry, and a second brother was an engineer.

Farkhunda, one of eight sisters, was academically inclined. The girls were either graduates of or students at universities or teachers’ colleges. Several were single in their 20s, unusual for Afghan women. The family did not patronise places like the Shah-Do Shamshira shrine, which was known for attracting the local riffraff as well as pilgrims.

Farkhunda turned out to be right: there was something amiss at the shrine. Investigators from the police and the National Directorate of Security, the intelligence service, learned later that the fortune teller, almost certainly with the assistance of the custodian, was trafficking in Viagra and condoms, said Shahla Farid, a member of the investigating committee set up by president Ashraf Ghani after the murder.

Viagra is popular and easily available in Afghanistan. Some men see it as an aphrodisiac; others as a remedy if they are nervous on their wedding night.

The investigators also found pregnancy test strips and sweet-smelling body wash in the fortune teller’s bathroom, suggesting that women might have used it. Farid and police investigators said it was possible that the fortune teller moonlighted as a pimp.

Return to the shrine

The last thing the fortune teller wanted was a young woman, fired with religious faith, disturbing his means of making a living. On March 19th, the last day of her life, Farkhunda returned to the shrine.

After lecturing the women about the uselessness of the amulets, she gathered up some used ones and may have set them on fire in a rubbish bin, said Farid, who is also a law professor at Kabul University.

“The custodian, Zainuddin, was illiterate, and he took the burnt papers and added to them some old pages of a burnt Koran, and that’s what he showed people outside the mosque as proof that she had burned the Koran,” Farid said. That is a charge almost guaranteed to bring a violent reaction in Afghanistan, where even the rumour of a Koran burning can bring hundreds into the streets, calling for blood.

Muhammad Naeem, who sells pigeon feed across the road from the shrine, said he had heard the custodian calling out to people walking by: “A woman burned the Koran. I don’t know if this one is sick or mentally disturbed, but what kind of Muslim are you? Go and defend your Koran.”

It was about 4pm, time for the afternoon prayer. The streets were full, and a crowd quickly gathered. Mobile phone videos captured the first moments of the argument.

“Why did you burn it?” a man shouted. As Farkhunda insisted she had not, another man shouted, “The Americans sent you.” She responded, “Which Americans?” He said, “Stop talking or I will punch your mouth.”

In the videos, Farkhunda seems at first to be screaming in pain from the kicks, but then her body convulses under the blows, and soon, she stops moving at all. Even when the mob pulls her into the street and gets a car to run over her, and she is dragged 300 feet, the police stand by.

Eager to join

By then, she was little more than a clothed mass of blood and bones. Yet still more people came to beat her. One of the most fervent was a young man, Mohammad Yaqoub, who worked at an eyeglasses shop. He heard the crowd as Farkhunda was dragged behind the car and rushed out, eager to join.

Eight months later, neatly dressed with a small beard and moustache, Yaqoub hardly looked like someone capable of violence. Yet in the videos, he is so caught up in the moment that he has a terrifying ferocity. “People were saying, ‘If someone doesn’t hit her, he is an infidel.’ That was when I got emotional and hit her twice,” he said in an interview at Pul-i-Charkhi prison, just east of Kabul.

Within two days of the killing, the ministry of hajj and religious affairs announced that Farkhunda had been innocent. Soon, she was transformed from a person into a cause. Video clips of her death were broadcast on Afghan television, prompting shame among many citizens.

The police, on the orders of the interior affairs ministry, ultimately detained more than 50 people, 49 of whom – including 19 police officers – stood trial. The judge appointed to preside over the trial, Safiullah Mujadidi, moved quickly. The prosecutors delivered their completed file to the judges on April 27th, and the trial began just five days later.

When the trial opened, fewer than seven of the 49 accused had retained defence lawyers. None of those lawyers were notified of the date or time of the trial, several of them said, and only three or four were present at all during the proceedings. Few, if any, were given access to the documents compiled by the prosecution until the trial started, so they were unable to prepare a defence of their clients, the lawyers said.

Mujadidi, who has since been appointed as a counsellor at the supreme court, said in an interview that he had attended trainings offered by several US-funded rule-of-law programmes and a German one. In his view, he said, “The decision in the primary court was according to the law, which brought justice.”

Yaqoub was one of four sentenced to death. The others were Zainuddin, the shrine’s custodian; Sharaf Baghlani, a one-time employee of the Afghan intelligence service who had boasted on Facebook about his role in Farkhunda’s killing; and Abdul Basheer, a driver.

Eight others were found guilty of major roles in Farkhunda’s murder and were each sentenced to 16 years in prison. The other 18 civilian defendants were found not guilty for lack of sufficient evidence.

Of the police officers, eight had their cases thrown out, and 11 were given the lightest penalty possible: they were required to continue working in their assigned police districts for one year and to refrain from travelling.

When Farkhunda died

While supporters of Farkhunda celebrated the trial-court verdict, defence lawyers rallied on behalf of their clients. They pointed out that no one had bothered to determine when Farkhunda died. Under Afghan law, the penalty is far lighter for desecrating a dead body than it is for murder.

Yaqoub’s lawyer produced an identity document saying that his client had been a minor at the time of the killing. The trial-court judge believed this document had been forged, but the appeals panel deemed Yaqoub underage and commuted his death sentence to 10 years in prison.

The argument that there was no evidence on who had struck the blow that killed Farkhunda made sense to both the appellate court and the supreme court, according to people close to the courts. So the judges commuted the other three death sentences to 20-year prison terms.

They also reviewed the evidence that the fortune teller was not at the shrine when Farkhunda was killed and ruled that he was not guilty because he had not been present. They exonerated a ninth police officer, so that in the end, only 10 were disciplined.

The legal team appointed by Ghani decided there had been so many flaws in the case that the only fair course was to ask the supreme court to order a retrial, according to the lawyers Najla Raheel and Zaki Ayoubi, who had joined the legal team representing Farkhunda’s family.

The request for a retrial was made in August, and the supreme ourt has not announced its decision. The court, which has great leeway to increase, reduce or throw out penalties, often simply confirms appellate decisions or sends them back to the appeals court for review. None of the lawyers interviewed for this article could recall a time when the court had sent a case back for a complete retrial.

Farkhunda's family is beginning to worry that there will never be a decision and that she is being forgotten. On a recent Friday, the only people near her grave were four neighbourhood children who use the cemetery as a playground. The children all knew her name. Six-year-old Ishaq volunteered: "Her name is Farkhunda. She burned the Koran, so she was punished and she was lynched." – (New York Times service)