Afghanistan's criminal justice system has made little progress in the way it treats women accused of running away or adultery, despite public commitments from the Afghan president to protect women's rights, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
The New York-based group's report on women jailed for so-called "moral crimes" comes as many women's rights activists say they're worried that President Hamid Karzai will abandon promises to protect those rights as he tries to court the Taliban for peace talks. Under the Taliban regime, women were forced to wear body-and-face covering burqas and were not allowed out of the house without a male family member as an escort.
There is no entry in the Afghan penal code for the crime of "running away" and yet hundreds of women have been jailed for fleeing their families or husbands.
Women interviewed by Human Rights Watch often said they were trying to escape abusive husbands or forced marriages. In some cases, those who had left were assumed to have cheated on their husbands, and therefore were jailed for adultery, which is a criminal offense in Afghanistan.
The report said police, prosecutors and judges routinely ignore women's accusations of abuse, arguing even in the face of physical evidence that women are either lying about the abuse or making it seem more severe than it was.
"What's needed first is the political will on behalf of the Afghan government to prosecute violence against women," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told reporters in Kabul.
In one case cited, prosecutors declined to file charges against the husband of a woman who went to police with wounds from being stabbed repeatedly with a screwdriver. The prosecutor did not question that her husband had inflicted the wounds, but declined to prosecute him because the injuries had not been life-threatening. The woman, identified as Nilofar M., was then imprisoned for adultery because she told prosecutors she had invited another man to her house.
"Police, with a crime victim sitting in front of them, see a criminal instead," said Heather Barr, the group's Afghanistan researcher and author of the report.
The report is based on interviews in October and November with 58 women and girls in Afghanistan who have been jailed for "moral crimes" _ primarily running away from home or adultery. About 400 women are currently in Afghan prisons because of moral crimes, the report said. That's lower than in August 2010, when the U.N. reported that 565 women were in detention in Afghanistan for moral crimes.
But those 400 remain imprisoned despite a numbers of releases by President Hamid Karzai of groups of women accused of moral crimes in recent years. In the most recent such incident, Karzai announced a blanket pardon earlier this month for women who ran away from their parents to make a love match or who chose a different husband than their families wanted. The government says it is working on identifying and releasing these women.
Neither the Interior Ministry, which controls the police and the prisons, nor the attorney general's office responded to calls seeking comment.
A spokesman for the Supreme Court said that men and women are treated equally in Afghanistan's laws and courts.
"The courts of this country hear equally cases of all Afghan citizens, without paying attention to whether they are men or women," spokesman Abdul Wakhil Omery. He said the chief justice had seen the Human Rights Watch report, but did not find specific enough evidence to prove wrongdoing or negligence in any individual cases.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.