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Afghans Question Taliban's Authority To Impose Strict Shari'a Punishments

Taliban fighters and thousands of residents of the Afghan capital, Kabul, watch as surgeons cut off a thief's hand in the national stadium on August 7, 1998.

The Taliban has begun imposing strict Islamic punishments across Afghanistan by publicly flogging dozens of men and women in several provinces for crimes such as theft and adultery.

Last week, the Taliban's supreme court said that more than two dozen people were publicly flogged for "committing adultery, theft, or eloping from home" in the southern province of Kandahar, the central province of Bamiyan, and the northern Takhar Province.

The public punishments came days after the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, ordered the Afghan judiciary to implement Hudood as part of the Taliban's overall drive to enforce the strict implementation of Islamic Shari'a law, which the extremist group has long touted as its main objective.

He told Afghan judges that they should issue rulings based on Hudood and Qisass after thoroughly probing the cases of "thieves, kidnappers, and seditionists" because "this is a ruling of Islamic Shari'a law and my order."

Taliban fighters gather around surgeons cutting off a thief's hand in Kabul's national stadium. (file photo August 1998)
Taliban fighters gather around surgeons cutting off a thief's hand in Kabul's national stadium. (file photo August 1998)

Under the Taliban's interpretation of Shari'a law, Muslim rulers must implement penalties of flogging for drinking, stoning for adultery, amputation of limbs for theft, crucifixion for robbery, and death for rebellion. These offenses are considered a violation of the boundaries set by God, or Hudood, and thus require public corporal punishments. Qisas are penalties of retributive justice that allow a victim's relatives to kill or forgive his murderer.

The imposition of these Islamic punishments now is widely considered a sign that the Taliban seeks to recreate the brutal rule it employed during its first stint in power from 1996-2001. The former Taliban regime was infamous for carrying out public executions, amputations, and floggings at stadiums as Hudood and Qisas punishments.

Many Afghans are raising alarm over the Taliban's new push to impose Hudood penalties.

Former lawmakers, religious scholars, and legal experts point out that the Taliban-led government lacks the legitimacy to impose such sweeping legal changes. They say the internationally isolated government has not met the legal and political principles required to introduce and enforce its strict interpretation of Islamic law, which they say deprives Afghans of their fundamental rights.

Since returning to power in August 2021, the Taliban has mirrored the previous regime by imposing sweeping restrictions on women by depriving them of education, jobs, mobility, and any visible societal role. While suspending adherence to the existing Afghan Constitution and laws, the extremist group has fired professional judges, prosecutors, and lawyers. It has also packed the judiciary with loyal clerics.

"The major problem is how these punishments will be implemented," said Shukria Barakzai, an outspoken former lawmaker.

She said the Taliban is merely exploiting the name of Shari'a law and has failed in its 15 months of rule to meet the fundamental criteria required for crafting a political system rooted in Islamic principles.

"You need a transparent and accountable political system in which the leadership is answerable to the people," she told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.

A Taliban fighters stands guard in Kabul.
A Taliban fighters stands guard in Kabul.

Barakzai, an exiled Taliban critic, said the Taliban's justice system is rife with nepotism and frequently violates Islamic teachings by forcing people to confess through torture.

"Under what principles are they flogging and stoning people in public?" she asked. "They lack experienced and honest judges."

Salahuddin Saeedi, an Afghan religious scholar, agreed.

"This is just a propaganda stunt because the Taliban lacks the capacity to implement complete justice outlined in Islam," he told Radio Azadi.

Saeedi said Hudood can only be implemented under stringent conditions under Islamic law, and that the Taliban has failed to meet those conditions.

"The Taliban government lacks the legitimacy to implement Hudood," he said.

An Afghan judge whips a woman in front of a crowd in Ghor Province in 2015.
An Afghan judge whips a woman in front of a crowd in Ghor Province in 2015.

Afghanistan's now-defunct constitution, introduced under the previous government, required all of the country's laws to be compliant with Islamic injunctions. Almost all Afghans are practicing Muslims.

Mir Abdul Wahid Sadaat, an Afghan legal expert, said the Taliban's Hudood punishments violate Shari'a law because they violate the spirit of Afghan lawmaking.

"The rights of the people of Afghanistan are the primary target of these Taliban punishments," he told Radio Azadi, adding their reintroduction undermines the international human rights laws and conventions that Kabul adhered to in the past.

Even sympathizers find it challenging to defend the Taliban's obsession with Hudood punishments.

Hatef Mukhtar, a political commentator, often defends Taliban actions on Afghan media. He told Radio Azadi that the Taliban needs to focus on securing domestic legitimacy and international recognition before implementing Hudood.

"It is not important to flog people," he said, adding that the emphasis should be on gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the world and ending the Taliban government's international isolation.

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