It was a killing that sent shockwaves through Afghan society. In March 2015, a 27-year-old religious scholar named Farkhunda Malikzada was stoned to death following false allegations that she had burnt a copy of the Quran. Her death in the Afghan capital was captured on a mobile phone, and showed grisly scenes of an angry mob who ran her body over with a car, set her alight, and threw her scorched remains over a river in Kabul. The President of Afghanistan called the killing a "heinous crime" and her death sparked nationwide protests by people calling for greater women's rights in a country that is notorious for having very few.
But the shockwaves never reached the criminal justice system, long plagued by corruption, partisanship and incompetence. Of the dozens of men originally charged in connection for her death, charges against 18 were dropped for lack of evidence, and eight others were sentenced to 16 years in prison. Of 19 policemen charged with dereliction of duty, eight were acquitted due to lack of evidence, and 11 were sentenced to one year in prison. Last month, the Appeals Court upheld a decision to release 37 defendants ahead of their appeals.
Four men were given the death penalty — but on Wednesday it was announced that an Afghan appeals court had decided to quash that sentence. It was commuted to 20 years in prison for three of the men, and ten years for a defendant that is under 18. Speaking to VICE news, appeals court judge Abdul Nasir Murid said after reviewing the first court's decisions it had been decided there was not enough evidence against the men to warrant a death sentence.
"It's a total injustice to the whole family. It's not a court, it's just a show," Nabjullah, Malikzada's brother, told VICE News. The family has no legal representation throughout the case and had not been directly informed of the change in sentencing, which took place behind closed doors. "The session actually did not take place; they went on to give the sentence from nowhere," said Nabjullah. "The media should have been there, we should have been there, the lawyers should have been there. It's a tyranny against us. The whole world laughs at the judicial system of Afghanistan."
The family were calling on President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani to step in, he added.
"The verdict of 20 years means freedom, it means they will be released. We want the earlier decision for the death penalty," Nabjullah told the Associated Press.
Human rights activist Ramin Anwari said the government had given in to conservative clerics, many of whom had said the attack would have been justified if Malikzada had actually desecrated a Quran.
"If these people are sentenced to death in a case that appears to hinge on the burning of a Quran, then people will think twice in the future about taking such actions against people who act against religion — in which case rule of law will have won. They don't want that," he said.
Others have highlighted the extreme levels of violence against women in Afghanistan — one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, according to the United Nations. Gender-based violence is endemic and under-reported, it says, and it's a country where women remain severely restricted and under-represented in all sectors of society.
"The court's decision is just one small example of the culture of impunity surrounding perpetrators of violence against women," said Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan Member of Parliament and women's rights activist, who also formed a member of the commission formed by the President of Afghanistan to investigate Malikzada's death. "For the past 13 to 14 years we have seen an increase in the number of cases of violence against women in Afghanistan, and that is partly due to impunity."
The secret nature of the judicial proceedings has also angered those who fought for justice for Malikzada. "I as a member of the commission to investigate Farkhunda's death was not informed about the decision," Koofi told VICE News.
'What we wanted was an open trial with participation of those who were part of the investigation. They needed to inform the people. They didn't inform women activists, they didn't inform me or ask me to participate in the court hearing."
Following Malikzada's death, outrage flooded through the streets of Kabul as thousands marched demanding justice for the killing. Less than four months on, hope has faded. "What we all asked for was justice for Farkhunda," Koofi told VICE News. "[But] there is no trust that justice will be given to her. The courts are just building more mistrust amongst the people."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.