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Is Rape Case A Turning Point For Afghanistan?

Two of the defendants are seen in court in Kabul on September 7, where the court needed just a few hours to sentence the seven men to death for the attack.

The multiple rape and robbery was so audacious and brutal it sent shock waves throughout a country accustomed to violence against women.

At least 10 men, wearing police uniforms, stopped a convoy of cars returning families from a wedding in the district of Paghman, outside the Afghan capital. The women, one of them pregnant, were pulled from their vehicles, beaten, robbed of their jewelry, and raped in a field by the side of the road.

One victim later died of her injuries, adding to the national outrage that erupted when the August 23 attack was reported a few days later.

Thousands of men and women took to the streets of Kabul and other cities across Afghanistan, demanding public hangings for the men responsible.

Under enormous public pressure, including demands from local elders, police swiftly detained seven of the suspects. On September 7, in a 2 1/2-hour trial broadcast live on national television from a Kabul courtroom, death sentences were handed down.

The swift justice was widely portrayed as a victory for women's rights, and some looked upon the ruling as a turning point in a country where it's the rape victims who often end up behind bars for moral crimes and adultery, while the culprits walk free.

Residents of Konduz Province demand death sentences for those guilty pf the Paghman attacks.
Residents of Konduz Province demand death sentences for those guilty pf the Paghman attacks.

The case, some argued, would encourage other victims of sex crimes to seek justice, rather than remain silent to avoid family disgrace.

Soraya Sobhrang, the commissioner for women's rights at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, believes the ruling sends a strong message to society. "This time the people of Afghanistan decided this case should become a strong warning to all those who perpetrate such crimes that we have laws and justice can prevail," she said.

When Is Rape A Crime?

The latest rape case has since received extensive coverage on national media, social websites, and has earned the hashtag #Paghman on Twitter.

"While there have been numerous cases of gang rapes in the country, the Paghman case was unprecedented and unheard of in its brutality. It happened less than 10 kilometers from the presidential palace and near a popular recreational area where people go for family picnics and leisure," says Aziz Rafe, the head of Afghanistan's Civil Society Association.

"Local leaders and elders demanded that authorities punish the attackers to restore the victims' honor and also as damage control to preserve Paghman's reputation as a safe area."

But while Rafe sees the reaction to the case as a positive sign, he is critical of the sentences handed down. In particular, he notes that the charges didn't include rape -- the men were found guilty of armed robbery and adultery. "It's outrageous," he says. "When someone attacks and rapes a woman it should be called 'rape' not 'adultery.'"

"It's not a major turning point yet," Rafe adds. "We still have a long way to go."

Concerns remain that the ruling was merely a show trial, and that the sentences could be overturned once the case is out of the public eye. The men are expected to appeal the court ruling, and the appeals process can take several weeks.

Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah, with contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.