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Farkhunda mob death trial exposes Afghanistan justice failures

Afghans stage a re-enactment of the killing by a mob of an Afghan woman during a protest demanding her killers be brought to justice, in Kabul, Afghanistan, 27 April 2015 Image copyright EPA
Image caption Protesters staged a re-enactment of Farkhunda's murder

Afghan justice was itself in the dock at the trial in Kabul of 11 policemen for failing to protect an Afghan woman who was beaten to death by a mob. And many both inside and outside the country believe it failed the test.

Very few of those accused had any legal representation, and the trial was handled very quickly given the large number of defendants.

And in taking longer to consider the charges faced by the 19 police accused of failing to protect the woman - named Farkhunda - the judge gave the impression that these were more important than the murder trials of those who actually carried out the attack.

Earlier this month, he had quickly handed down death sentences to four men and long prison sentences to eight others for killing her in a horrific mob attack in March.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The brother of Farkhunda has expressed concern over the trials

After the sentences were handed down on Tuesday, prominent MP Farkhunda Naderi told the BBC that the wrong people were in the dock. She claimed that political pressure had prevented any senior police officers from being charged.

She said the one-year sentences for the police were "symbolic", and that once again Afghanistan had failed to deal properly with a case involving a woman.

The consequences for Farkhunda's family have been grave. They now live under police guard in fear of retribution from the relatives of those accused, or others who believe the original story that Farkhunda had burnt a Koran.

They were represented at the beginning of the court hearing by American lawyer Kim Motley, who has considerable experience in Afghan courts. But she was removed under pressure from Judge Safiullah Mujadidi early in the case, who said he would represent the family himself.

Creating a storm

The case has had far-reaching implications for Afghan society. Human rights groups mobilised early, and in a country where funerals are usually all-male affairs, the sight of women carrying her coffin was a surprise.

But the family's wish that an Islamic cleric say prayers at her graveside was not granted, and that was an early sign that Farkhunda's legacy would be contested.

The road outside the shrine where she was killed was quickly renamed Farkhunda Street, and in recent weeks, there have been a series of rallies and other events there, influenced by her death.

On the 40th day after she was killed, a stage was erected for a re-enactment of the event in front of the shrine where Farkhunda was beaten to death, complete with a circle of men filming the incident on mobile phones - one of the more shocking details of the killing.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Farkhunda was wrongly accused of blasphemy

Although Farkhunda was herself a faithful Muslim - she had been protesting about the abuse to her faith in the selling of fake healing charms when she was killed - her death has been used by a number of people to campaign for a reduction of the power of Islam in Afghanistan.

One prominent activist said on Facebook that the shrine where she was killed should be destroyed and replaced by a public toilet.

Some are even willing to speak out in public against Islam, and for a secular state - an unthinkable development until now.

'Suppressive influence'

Salay Gaffar, from the Solidarity Party, said Islamic mullahs use religion to silence women.

"They have used Islam to suppress people, to stop women in their struggle, so they have power to rule," she said.

She pointed to a number of cases where young girls have been raped by Islamic clerics when they have gone for religious instruction.

The Ulema - Afghanistan's religious leadership - have fought back. At a rally, also in front of the shrine, a number of prominent Islamic leaders fought to regain their authority.

One member of the Ulema, Mudassir Islami, said people "believed the media more than any other means in the country. If we let it go... the country may become very secular. Islam may not be respected any more".

The judge said that the police he had sentenced had a right to appeal. But the implications of this case go well beyond the events in a Kabul court room.

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