KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan president has ordered his government to reopen the case of a woman beaten to death last year by a frenzied mob outside a Kabul shrine, just days after the country's highest court reduced the sentences of the 13 men convicted of her murder.
Ashraf Ghani's move comes ahead of the first anniversary of Farkhunda Malikzada's killing and as a leading international rights group issued a report slamming Afghanistan's judicial system over its failure to deliver justice in the high-profile case.
In its statement, Human Rights Watch called it a "bitter irony" that the Supreme Court in Kabul had confirmed the reduced sentences on March 8, the International Women's Day.
The 27-year-old Malikzada was attacked and lynched on March 19 last year outside a shrine in the Afghan capital after one of the men in the group shouted that she had burned a Quran, the Muslim holy book — an accusation that was later found to be false.
The brutal slaying stunned the country and led to calls for reform of the judicial system, long plagued by corruption, partisanship and incompetence, and stronger protection for women from violence.
A spokesman for Ghani, Zafar Hashemi, said the newly-appointed attorney general had been instructed by the president to "make justice for Farkhunda his top priority and reopen the case."
"The president has assigned a senior and dedicated adviser from his legal team to follow up and provide support to Farkhunda's family lawyers," Hashemi told The Associated Press. "He asks for regular reporting on her case and puts significant pressure on law enforcement authorities to make sure that justice is delivered."
Four men were originally sentenced to death for Malikzada's murder and another nine were handed long prison sentences. However, the Supreme Court this week upheld a lower court's decision to reduce the sentences for all convicted.
Three of the death sentences were commuted to 20 years in prison and the fourth to 10 years. The other nine men convicted in the case also had their prison terms slashed. Initially, 30 men were charged with Malikzada's murder.
Footage taken on cell phones of the attack showed Malikzada being punched, kicked and beaten with wooden planks, after which the crowd threw her from a roof, ran over her with a car and crushed her with a block of concrete. They then set her body ablaze on the bank of the Kabul River.
The incident triggered widespread demonstrations, across Afghanistan and internationally, demanding justice for women in a country where they are widely treated with contempt and where they have their constitutional right to protection from violence routinely breached. An Afghan civil rights group has erected a memorial to her on the river bank.
The New York-based rights group said that by commuting the death sentences, the Afghan justice system "averts the further cruelty of capital punishment," but added that justice had not been done for Malikzada.
"At every stage of this case, the Afghan criminal justice system failed to adequately investigate, hold to account or appropriately punish those responsible," HRW said.
Shukria Jalalzay, the director of the Afghan Women's Coordination and Promotion Organization, said rights groups continued to exert pressure on Ghani to keep his word on ensuring justice for Malikzada.
"It has been almost a year and slowly the punishments for those convicted of her murder are decreasing," she said. Like many activists, Jalalzay said she believes the police's role in the attack resulted in the politicization of the case.
The cellphone footage from the attack has shown police stood by watching while Malikzada was being beaten to death. A total of 19 police were prosecuted for their failure to prevent her death. HRW noted that "the court lightly disciplined only 11" policemen. Those hearings were separate from the trials of the attackers.
"Justice has not been served," Jalalzay said.
Hashemi, the president's spokesman, said that under the Afghan constitution Ghani "cannot interfere in affairs of the judiciary." He added that the president "personally follows on support" provided to Malikzada's family.
In the year that has passed since the lynching, most of Malikzada's family has left Afghanistan for Tajikistan, after her father, Mohammad, told the AP that they had received death threats during the early stages of the court cases. He said the children in the family could not go to school and the adults could no longer go to work, and that they felt abandoned by the government and the justice system.