They were on their way back from a wedding with their families. Four women, one of them pregnant, traveling in a district that's safer than most in Afghanistan. Paghman is not without its insurgents, but the violence raging in places like Helmand feels far from here.
Much like the rest of Afghanistan, however, violence in Paghman unrelated to the insurgency is on the increase. And last month, the four women were robbed and gang raped as they made their way back to Kabul; one of the women later died of her wounds. The calls for justice began with President Hamid Karzai himself.
What followed would have put a smile on Clint Eastwood's face — back when he was doing frontier-justice spaghetti Westerns, not after he started yelling at chairs. Within a week after suspects were arrested, they were identified by the victims and sentenced to death by hanging after a two-hour trial.
Today, an appeals court upheld the sentences for five of the seven suspects. The other two were sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Nothing makes America's heart beat harder than seeing wrongs righted. But what happened here has more to do with theater than with justice. What could have been a textbook example of how to prosecute crimes against women in Afghanistan has become another political prop for a departing Karzai. And the multiple failures of due process in the case only serve to highlight the futility of the foreign intervention in Afghanistan.
It's virtually unheard of for violent crimes against women in the country to be prosecuted so vigorously — if they're prosecuted at all. In its November 2011 report on the implementation of the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) act, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) highlighted multiple instances of crimes against women that were never brought to trial. In some cases, instead of charging suspected assailants with rape, the court prosecuted the victims for zina, or having consensual sex outside marriage.
In addition to jail time, a zina prosecution can result in an Afghan woman or girl facing the prospect of being the victim of an honor killing. That's if she isn't forced to marry her rapist or raise his baby. In theory, the EVAW, signed into law in 2009, was supposed to prevent these things from happening by establishing prosecution guidelines for acts of violence against women including rape, forced prostitution, publicizing the identity of a victim, burning or using chemical substances, and forced self-immolation or suicide.
There was a time when American objections to this process could have overridden the judicial charade, but that time has long since passed.
Two things make the Paghman rapes different, according to Human Rights Watch senior researcher Heather Barr: Their husbands were there, and the rapists were strangers.
"The fact that the husbands were overpowered and humiliated has in a sense made them the victims in the eyes of the government," Barr said. In most rape cases, the rapist is a family member or is known to the victim, so "the police feel like it's a family matter where the government shouldn't get involved."
What's happened, says Barr, "highlights every failing of the justice system," and illustrates that there is "no genuine commitment to rule of law." Karzai took the opportunity to make this trial part of his legacy, and his calls for a sentence of death "before they were even tried is unpresidential and unforgivable." The Karzai government took the unprecedented step of televising the trial in a bid to showcase his ability to govern.
For Karzai, this trial could not have come at a better time. In the middle of a gridlocked presidential election, the Afghan government is desperate to show that it can take decisive action when needed. It's also desperate to show that it can still maintain the rule of law this close to Kabul.
That's because there's a growing unease among Afghans — and it's not because of the Taliban. Kabul residents now talk more often about the need to alter their social plans in order to avoid being victims of a crime than they do about their worries over the insurgency. A crime this violent so close to the capital city — it occurred less than 30 minutes from Kabul — underscores the inability of the Afghan police to keep ordinary citizens safe.
Much of the responsibility for this failure lies with foreign troops, who have been mentoring Afghan law enforcement for several years, and a counterinsurgency strategy that continues to use Afghan police to fight insurgents instead of crime. By putting members of law enforcement on the front lines, NATO and the Americans are leaving behind a hamstrung police force ill-equipped to protect and serve.
Karzai's eagerness to televise the kangaroo court highlights how little influence the Americans have over him anymore. There was a time when American objections to this process could have overridden the judicial charade, but that time has long since passed. And without a successor in the presidential palace, the Americans and other foreign observers are left to deal with a man who cares very little about their opinions.
Karzai is thinking about his legacy and looking to show he can still wield power. What has happened with the case has little to do with justice — and nothing to do with the victims. It's political theater at its most tragic, scripted by a government that cares for the actors just long enough to grab some headlines. But the curtain will fall too soon to make an actual difference in the lives of Afghanistan's most vulnerable.
Follow Gary Owen on Twitter: @ElSnarkistani