Institute for War and Peace Reporting,
5 April 2012.
Women accused of crimes in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province say the lack of female representation in the legal profession is obstructing equal access to justice. Female law graduates exist in the eastern province, but they are not choosing to enter the mainstream legal professions. All cases in Nangarhar are handled by male lawyers, prosecutors and judges.
Some of the approximately 50 women now in prison in the province say they were too ashamed to tell defence lawyers and prosecutors the full facts about their cases, which might have mitigated the verdicts passed on them.
Habiba is currently serving a ten-year sentence for murdering her husband, but says there were serious extenuating circumstances which she felt unable to disclose to the male lawyers she dealt with.
“My husband had sexual relations with my 17-year old daughter. I repeatedly told him to stop it, but he threatened to kill me. My Islamic beliefs and my conscience meant I could not bear the shame of it, so I killed my husband,” she said. “I couldn’t tell male lawyers all the details, but I could have confided in female lawyers. I am sure I would have been released, as such actions are punishable by execution under Islamic law.
Abdol Satar Khalil, a defence lawyer working for Women For Women, an NGO in eastern Afghanistan which hires defence lawyers for female defendants, said these suspects often omitted personal details when talking to defence and prosecution lawyers.
“They say nothing, out of shame. But they don’t realise how detrimental it is for them to hide the truth,” he said, explaining how his organisation employed female family counsellors who could get suspects to open up to them.
Abdul Qayum, head of the prosecutor’s office for Nangarhar, said having female prosecutors question defendants of the same sex would be better for ensuring justice.
“It is true that many female suspects conceal the truth from male lawyers, particularly in ‘moral’ and family cases. The lawyer doesn’t get told the whole story. That also has an impact on the punishment imposed on the defendant,” he said.
In Afghanistan, the loosely-defined term “moral crime” is often applied to women who run away from home or refuse to get married. These are not offences in the written criminal code, but it is common for courts to impose jail sentences of up to a year on women deemed guilty of them.
Although levels of female participation in public life in Afghanistan have increased dramatically since the Taleban government was ousted in 2001, progress has been slower in the provinces.
“It is unfortunate for [Nangahar] that we have no female interrogators in the police, in the prosecutor’s office or in the judiciary,” Khalil said. “Female interrogators and [defence] lawyers for women are the foundations for fair justice.”
Anisa Omrani, head of the Nangarhar provincial department for women’s affairs, said it was not clear why female graduates in both mainstream and Islamic law were not coming into the profession.
“We are prepared to work with them on getting them appointed,” she said.