By Mirwais Harooni
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan hanged five men on Wednesday over a gang rape that had shocked the country, officials said, despite requests from human rights groups for new President Ashraf Ghani to stay the executions to address concerns about the handling of the case.
A gang rape by armed men is rare in Kabul, the capital, and the case tapped into a vein of anxiety as foreign troops leave the country while a badly stretched Afghan army and police fight a deadly Taliban insurgency.
The case had been held up as a test of Ghani's resolve to reform a justice system often accused of lapses of due process.
"The horrendous due process violations in the Paghman trial have only worsened the injustices of this terrible crime," said Phelim Kyne, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
The five men were put to death barely a month after being convicted in a trial criticized by the United Nations and rights groups as being flawed in evidence and process. The men were convicted of robbery and extramarital sex, but not rape.
Deputy Interior Minister Gen. Ayoub Salangi said the men were executed on Wednesday afternoon. Deputy Attorney General Rahmatullah Nazari confirmed the deaths.
The August rape and robbery of the women, who were returning home from a wedding along with their families outside Kabul, the capital, sparked concern in Afghanistan's conservative society over public security at a time of transition.
Police said a large group of men, some dressed in police uniforms, and carrying assault rifles, stopped a convoy of cars in the district of Paghman, about 15 km (9 miles) west of the capital. They dragged four women out of the cars in the middle of the night and raped them in a field near the main road.
The assault provoked such an outpouring of rage that former President Hamid Karzai told a delegation of women the perpetrators would face the death penalty. Karzai confirmed the death sentences just before leaving office late last month.
The U.N. human rights commissioner and other rights groups had called for new president Ghani to stay the executions for a review of the case.
New York-based Human Rights Watch called the trial "gravely flawed," citing instances ranging from accusations of a manipulated police lineup to Karzai's public comment on the sentence before a trial began.
Criticism from rights groups also focused on the men's death sentences for the crime of extramarital sex and robbery, but not rape, which is a taboo subject.
(Reporting Mirwais Harooni; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)