By Nemat Sadat
Human rights are not revered in Afghanistan. Last November, President Karzai signed off on the execution of 16 prisoners on death row. Despite an international outcry by human rights activists and organizations, Kabul went forward and hanged 14 people on November 20th and 21st. While the death penalty is supported by a majority of Afghans, that does not make it morally righteous. Executions in Afghanistan came to a halt several years ago. But under mounting political pressure, President Karzai has charted a new course in dealing with the rise in communal violence throughout the country. By resuming the death penalty this week, President Karzai has managed to kill three birds with one stone: appease hardliners, distance himself from perceived outside influence, and demonstrate his relevance to a society that regards him as the ineffectual Viceroy of Kabul.
The death penalty is no solution when there is no proper rule of law. Corruption permeates law enforcement and the Afghan judicial system. Those executed were charged with rape, murder, kidnapping and robbery. Some of the executed were alleged terrorists linked to the Taliban. Human rights analysts monitoring the situation in Afghanistan suggest that the confessions of those on death row were elicited through torture. The hanged likely did not receive judicious due process. Even if they received a fair trial, there is a chance they may have been innocent. Once you kill someone, it’s too late to exonerate them. The damage is irreversible.
Before I say any more, let me disclose that I’m staunchly pro-life. There is no moral dilemma in my desire to support the sanctity of life. My own view is unpopular even among the educated elite in Kabul and the overwhelming majority in Afghanistan who view death penalty as permissible according to Sharia, or Islamic law. Public executions were public sport in recent past. Death by stoning was a common practice under the Taliban. Unfortunately, blood sport seems to be creeping back into society. Afghanistan has barely recovered from war and has yet to achieve reconciliation with the insurgents. Haven’t Afghans learned, after three and a half decades of bloodshed, that combating violence with deathly revenge only begets more violence?
In Afghanistan, proponents of capital punishment believe that taking a life to restore justice for the loss of life will serve as a deterrent to further crime. Following divine law is not only inhumane but it actually will not create deterrence. You cannot reform society to move towards equality and freedom and simultaneously impose feudal mechanisms of retribution. The two are simply incongruent.
If Afghanistan is truly to become peaceful, then it must adopt smart policies that tackle the sources of instability. It must eradicate the pervasive gun culture, reverse widening inequality, and establish nationwide security and the rule of law throughout Afghanistan in order to promote entry into the civilized world. Certainly, justice must be served. Felons must also be held accountable for their egregious acts. Afghanistan must not move backwards and join the world’s leading human rights violators. It is a rational-choice for Afghanistan to promote a culture of tolerance and respect the dignity of all people. In the short-term President Karzai may think his populist strategy will ingratiate itself with certain groups who support the recent spate of executions. However, if the executions persist, Karzai is creating irreparable damage to the credibility of Afghanistan.
The underlying problem here is President Karzai’s inability or unwillingness to go after the real perpetrators of injustice. The Taliban already retaliated with an attack last Friday that killed three and injured dozens in Ghazni. They have vowed to kill15 people they have held in captivity. The only sustainable solution to clamp down on insecurity in Afghanistan going forward is to focus on the root causes of violence.
According to Amnesty International, more than two-thirds of the countries in the world have now abolished the death penalty in law and practice. In the age of Twitter, global public opinion matters. Fortunately, Afghans don’t need to look further than to passage 5:32 of the Qur’an to realize that “If you kill one person it’s as if you kill all humanity.”
Nemat Sadat is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the American University of Afghanistan. He is an American of native Afghan origin who now lives in Kabul. You can follow him on Twitter @nematsadat