KABUL — Along a road overlooking a trash-filled riverbed, visitors from across the country stop at a memorial to Afghanistan’s most famous murdered woman. They snap photos of the drooping green Islamic flags and the spiny pine tree planted in her honor. They read the poem written on a red board that eulogizes her.
And they express a widely held sense of disappointment and anger.
“Farkhunda was a victim, and yet justice was not done,” said Mohammad Salim, 45, a government employee who was visiting from the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. “They should have hanged her killers on this very spot.”
Nearly six months ago, at the site where Farkhunda’s memorial is located, a mob wielding rocks and sticks killed the 27-year-old Islamic scholar after she was falsely accused of burning a Koran. The savagery, which included burning her body, unfolded as hundreds of people, including policemen, watched. Her death triggered public outrage, protests and a soul-searching unlike any seen in Afghanistan in recent memory, raising hopes that rule of law would finally prevail in a nation where women are all too often brutalized.
Today, those hopes have dwindled. Most of Farkhunda’s alleged attackers have gone unpunished or have had their sentences reduced, leading many Afghans to conclude that bribes, tribal allegiances and age-old customs have influenced the outcome.
Farkhunda’s family as well as female activists fighting for justice in the case have received numerous threats. And violence against Afghan women shows no sign of declining. Since Farkhunda’s death in March, there have been at least 450 attacks on women in Kabul and surrounding areas, a 12 percent increase over the same period last year, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
“We are facing several roadblocks,” said Wida Saghary, 30, an activist with the Justice for Farkhunda Campaign. Like many Afghans, Farkhunda used only one name.
In the days after Farkhunda’s murder, thousands of Afghans took to social media and the streets demanding justice and denouncing violence against women. At the scholar’s funeral, Saghary and other women carried her coffin — an act traditionally done by men — shattering a cultural taboo.
Under pressure, the government took swift action. Authorities charged 49 men in connection with her slaying, including 19 police officers who were accused of failing to protect Farkhunda. Officials who initially had praised her killing as justified to protect Islam were sacked.
A government fact-finding commission determined that Farkhunda had gotten into an argument with a seller of charms, bits of paper with handwritten Koranic verses said to have magical properties, at one of Kabul’s most historic mosques. She criticized his business as un-Islamic. In retaliation, he publicly accused her of burning the Koran, prompting the mob to lynch her.
But even at the height of the protests, activists were concerned that some traditional religious leaders would obstruct the probe, fearing it could reflect badly on the mosque where the argument occurred — or even on Islam itself.
The government also had a poor track record of protecting Afghan women. While gender equality is enshrined in the country’s constitution, many women endure high levels of violence. Their attackers are rarely prosecuted.
The activists’ fears about limited results have, so far, proved true.
At trial, 23 of the 49 men were convicted, while the rest were acquitted. Four men were sentenced to death, eight received 16-year sentences, and 11 police officers were given one year in prison.
Last month, an appellate court in a closed session threw out the death sentences of the four men. Three of them were sentenced to 20 years in prison, including the charm seller, Zainuddin; a fourth was declared a minor and received a 10-year sentence. The court also pardoned the caretaker of the shrine, Mohammad Omran, who was initially sentenced to 16 years in prison. Witnesses said he also had accused Farkhunda of burning the Koran.
Outside the judicial system, efforts to punish Farkhunda’s killers and use her legacy to champion women’s rights have run into hurdles. Conservative clerics and their followers have targeted female activists, accusing them on social media of being antireligious, infidels and prostitutes.
A government promise to shut down the businesses of charm sellers has not been carried out. And Farkhunda has been portrayed as a unique case rather than as an example of the threats facing many Afghan women.
“All these issues have made us unable, so far, to provide justice for Farkhunda,” said Munera Yousufzada, 30, a gallery owner and women’s rights activist, who was among those who carried Farkhunda’s coffin at her funeral.
In the judicial realm, however, the activists may get another chance. A panel of lawyers appointed last month by President Ashraf Ghani is planning to recommend to the Supreme Court that it send the case back for a retrial.
“We need to take this case seriously, because it’s possible that tomorrow they will do to me what they did to Farkhunda or to some other girl,” said Najla Raheel, the chairwoman of the panel, which in effect is acting as legal representation for Farkhunda and her family. “All the world knows that such brutalities happen in Islamic countries. We need to show the world the real face of Islam by punishing these men.”
The team of five lawyers recently finished reviewing the testimony and documents introduced in the first trial, as well as the 120-page decision by the appellate court, which has not been made public. In coming days, the panel is expected to present its appeal before the Supreme Court, said Raheel.
The panel will argue, she said, that the police neglect was more severe than presented and that the coroner’s office had not properly determined how and when Farkhunda had died, issues that apparently led to the reduction in sentences.
“That there has been corruption is a possibility,” said Shamsullah Ahmadzai, the Kabul director of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The case, he said, “has been investigated in a very shallow manner.”
Much is at stake for Ghani. He was elected last year partly on promises to improve women’s rights and strengthen the rule of law.
At the memorial to Farkhunda, many visitors said they hoped a retrial would take place.
“Justice should be ensured,” said Mohammad Aman, 45, a driver for a private school.
For some activists, a harsh punishment is vital for ensuring greater protection of women. “If these four guys are executed, the number of such cases would decrease,” Saghary said.
If a retrial is rejected, the activists plan to protest by sleeping in a coffin placed in front of the Supreme Court, Yousufzada said. She acknowledged that “as time has passed, the focus and attention on Farkhunda’s case has decreased” and that there are now only 30 to 50 active members of the Justice for Farkhunda Campaign. But she also said that quality was better than quantity.
“When we carried Farkhunda’s coffin, there were only 10 to 15 of us, but we made a revolution,” Yousufzada said.