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Karzai Caught Between Foreign Donors, Afghan Voters On Death Penalty

  • Ron Synovitz

A public execution in Afghanistan during the 1990s (file photo)

A public execution in Afghanistan during the 1990s (file photo)

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has signed nine execution orders that have been carried out at Afghan prisons during the past week.

UN human rights officials say they are concerned about the executions because of the shortcomings of the judicial system.

But a growing number of Afghans -- weary of lawlessness and increased violent crime in their country -- are demanding the execution of convicted murderers, rapists, or kidnappers.

In fact, many tell RFE/RL they want the government to execute criminals in public -- something that hasn't occurred in the country since the rule of the Taliban regime.

For most of the world, secretly filmed public executions at Afghan sports stadiums rank alongside the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas as one of the enduring negative images of the Taliban regime.


Conventional wisdom in Afghanistan has it that public executions lead to a reduction of violent crime.

The issue has put Karzai in a difficult position.

Running for reelection in 2009, Karzai must heed the demands of voters who are angry about the sharp increase of crimes such as kidnapping, rape, and murder in recent years.

But Karzai also cannot afford to alienate international donors who may withhold desperately needed aid over the issue.

When Karzai attended a conference in Kabul for politically active Afghan women on October 29, one of their main demands was the reintroduction of public executions for those convicted of kidnapping or rape.
I think the death penalty is absolutely correct. Across the entire world, criminals are punished for their crimes. And under Islam, if someone is a killer then he must be executed

Among those making the demand was Shukria Barakzai, a woman who is a member of the Afghan parliament.

"We want capital punishment for those who rape girls and women and our children. This is our legal right, according to both Shari'a law and international standards," Barakzai said.

That view horrifies Navanethem Pillay, the United Nations' high commissioner for human rights, because Karzai himself has acknowledged that the Afghan judicial system has serious flaws.

Karzai explained to the women at the conference that Afghanistan would risk losing aid it receives from the UN and international donors if executions are, once again, carried out in public.

Instead, Karzai promised the women that he would start signing execution orders for the 120 prisoners now sitting on death row. His stipulation was that executions would happen only within the walls of the country's prisons.

"If someone is a kidnapper or violating a woman's life, and if the Supreme Court orders their execution, that is absolutely correct. We do not care about [the opinions of] foreigners [on this issue]," Karzai said.

Death By Hanging

Since that conference, Karzai has signed execution orders against nine men. All were killed by hanging within Kabul's Pul-e Charki prison or at other jails in the country.

Afghan Deputy Justice Minister Qasim Hashemzai tells RFE/RL that all nine executions involved former Taliban fighters or violent criminals who were convicted of murder, rape, or kidnapping.

Hashemzai says that in all of the cases, the death sentence was issued by the Supreme Court and then sent to Karzai for his approval -- as required by the Afghan Constitution. He says Karzai signed the execution orders only after the president's office conducted its own investigation into each case.

"Afghanistan's constitution confirms the death penalty [is appropriate punishment for crimes like murder, rape, and kidnapping]. But we are also taking into consideration international standards," Hashemzai says.

"The president has been thinking for some time how to reduce the death penalty in these cases to life in prison. But he couldn't find a way. So he has signed the execution orders."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Hashemzai also explains how Karzai's administration came to the conclusion that executions should not be carried out in public.

"There are some references in the laws of Afghanistan about public executions and we are acting according to the law. The law says that executions must be carried out in what is called a 'safe area,'" he says.

"Our interpretation of 'safe area' is that executions should not be carried out in public. We have such a safe area inside the Pul-e Charki prison. So the executions are taking place within that facility."

Shkula, a young woman from Kabul, says she strongly agrees with the death penalty for murder, rape, and kidnapping.

"Every criminal should be punished. I think this is a very positive step. This is the only way of enforcing law and order. And it will have positive effects in the future," Shkula says.

But many Afghans say they disagree with the central government's decision not to carry out executions in public. Asad, a political science student at Kabul University, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that he thinks public executions are a strong deterrent against violent crime.

"I think the death penalty is absolutely correct. Across the entire world, criminals are punished for their crimes. And under Islam, if someone is a killer then he must be executed," Asad says.

"But I am upset about one thing. According to Islamic law, executions must be public. Executions are not meant only to kill a criminal. They also serve to teach a lesson to others."

But Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, is concerned about any kind of state execution, whether public or not. This, she says, is because the police and court systems in Afghanistan "fall short of internationally accepted standards guaranteeing due process and fair trial."

She says that under the current circumstances in Afghanistan, there is a grave risk of miscarriages of justice -- leading to the execution of innocent people.

She has urged Afghanistan to call a halt to any further executions and "to rejoin the growing international consensus for a moratorium on the death penalty."

Before this week, the last known executions by the Afghan government were of 15 men in 2007 and a single man in 2004.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report from Kabul and Prague