Worlds Colliding Afghanistan's Human Rights Disaster
The case of Afghan Christian convert Abdul Rahman has attracted worldwide attention. Responding to international pressure, the government in Kabul has promised Rahman's release. But the case demonstrates that human rights continue to be in short supply in the Hindukush region, despite the fall of Afghanistan's fundamentalist Taliban regime five years ago.
Afghan prosecutors threatened Christian convert Abdul Rahman, seen here holding the Bible, with the death sentence for abandoning Islam.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, an elegant Pashtun and a member of the aristocratic Popalzai clan, isn't likely to forget the events of last week anytime soon. Ever since he took office just under four years ago, Karzai has been seen as an unmistakable darling of the West -- he's an Afghan with a master's degree in international relations, he speaks English and French and, thanks to Gucci, he even enjoys the reputation of being the "most elegant man on the planet."
Since last Tuesday, however, the phones have been ringing off the hook in Kabul's Arg Palace, as government officials from the West called to express their disgust and outrage over the Rahman case. United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced her "displeasure," while Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that he was "astonished." Karzai also received a call from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who demanded that Afghanistan uphold its "international obligations."
Finally, US President George W. Bush called to let his Afghan counterpart know that his administration was seriously concerned about the "deeply troubling" events in Afghanistan. The US president had just honored Karzai with a surprise visit three weeks earlier, during which he publicly praised Afghanistan for being on the right track.
The source of all the excitement was 41-year-old Abdul Rahman, who had converted from Islam to Christianity and was about to be sentenced to death as a result of his departure from the faith. The Western media, especially in Germany, were outraged over what they called "Stone Age justice" in Karzai's country.
On Sunday, an Afghan court returned the case to prosecutors citing "investigative gaps." The court said it would require public health officials to examine Rahman's mental health after Rahman said he had been "hearing voices." The move could result in the charges ultimately being dropped against Rahman -- a gesture that could allow all sides to save face in the conflict. Still, the fact that the case ever made it to the courts raises serious questions about basic human rights in the Hindakush nation.
Amin Farhang, the Afghan economics minister, faced the brunt of the world's outrage far more directly than his boss in Kabul. Farhang, a professor of economics who lived in the western German city of Bochum for about 20 years, gave 37 interviews to the German media. He attempted to explain to the Germans -- who had sent troops and funds to the region in the belief that they were helping to bring democracy to Afghanistan -- how such an injustice could possibly occur five years after the fall of the Taliban.
Farhang enjoys a sweeping view of Kabul from his eighth-story office. He points to a half-finished mosque that was begun by the Taliban and is now being completed by the Karzai government, then to the high-rise buildings currently springing up by the dozen in the center of the Afghan capital and, finally, to a woman in a ragged burqa, sitting in the middle of the street, begging. "This is Afghanistan, these are worlds colliding," he says.
Farhang's message to the Western media was consistently the same: that the Rahman case would be reviewed, that a solution would be found and that the man would not be executed. He also said that a country that looks back on 27 years of war, devastation and terror cannot be expected to immediately transform itself into a state governed by law and order, into the kind of system one finds in Europe, for example.
But no one in Germany truly understood what Farhang was saying. Why? Because the Rahman case is such a fundamental violation of human rights, one that isn't quite that easy to put into perspective.
The affair surrounding Abdul Rahman's conversion to Christianity was apparently triggered by a family dispute. Rahman's father reported his son to the authorities when the son, who had been living in Pakistan and Germany for some time, returned to Kabul and demanded custody of his two daughters, who had been living with their grandfather. The father accused Rahman of attempting to forcibly convert the family, and Rahman was arrested.
"The public prosecutor wants him to hang," announced Judge Alhaj Ansarullah Mawlawy Zada, who clearly agreed with the prosecutor even before the case was set to go to trial. "It is a crime to renounce Islam."
Outrage quickly spread through the West like wildfire, signaling a follow-up to the dispute over Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. But this time the roles would have been reversed. In the Danish cartoon case, Muslims were outraged over what they believed was a lack of respect for their religion, whereas the Rahman case revolves around a lack of tolerance for Christians in the Muslim world. Indeed, freedom of religion is not necessarily assured in many Islamic countries. Be it in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Somalia or Nigeria -- those who do not embrace Islam are often persecuted and live constantly under the threat of violence.
But Afghanistan is a special case. Here, in the heart of the Islamic world, Western nations with Christian majority populations are involved in a major effort to bring democracy to the Middle East -- an effort matched in scale by Western rage and disappointment over the Rahman case. "It is not acceptable that our soldiers should put themselves at risk or even sacrifice their lives for a fundamentalist, illiberal regime," former Italian President Francesco Cossiga wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. US President Bush agreed, saying he could not tolerate the notion that a country the US helped liberate would prosecute a man for his choice of religion.
An open secret
The Rahman case highlights a reality the West has simply chosen to ignore: Aside from a general deterioration in security, disregard for human rights has once again become the norm in Afghanistan.
The German government has been kept abreast of the Afghan situation for some time through top-secret situation reports compiled by its foreign ministry. In its recent November 2005 report, the German embassy in Kabul characterizes the country as one that it is well removed from Western standards. "The human rights situation is desolate," the report reads, adding that "there can be no mention whatsoever of an even remotely functioning judicial system." According to the German report, 38 prisoners have been on death row since June 2005. In at least three cases, the judges who ruled in the defendants' appeals were the same judges who had already sentenced them in lower courts.
The report also states that "it is virtually impossible for converts to openly practice their religion," and that there is only one Christian church in the entire Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. It is located on the grounds of the Italian embassy in Kabul.
But converts like Rahman aren't the only ones being persecuted. Shaima Rezayee, the 24-year-old host of the music program "Hop" on Tolo TV, a privately-owned station, often appeared on camera wearing jeans and always without a veil. Last May, she was found with a bullet in her head in her apartment in Kabul's Jar Kala neighborhood. The Ulema Shura (Council of Religious Scholars), led by Chief Justice Fazal Hadi Shinwari, had denounced her program as "amoral and un-Islamic" and called for Rezayee's dismissal.
Tolo TV, a station run by liberal Afghan exiles, had no interest in challenging the religious leaders. The station fired the young woman and publicly posted her notice of termination, a document in which she was accused of improper behavior -- consuming alcohol and being involved in extramarital affairs, accusations that amount to a death sentence in conservative Afghan society.
The death of literary figure Nadia Anjuman, a native of Herat, was also barely mentioned in the Western media. Anjuman was at the beginning of a promising career, and her insightful volume of poetry, "Dark Flower," was attracting attention in literary circles. But the 25-year-old poet's family found her poems about love and beauty offensive. Late last year Anjuman, the mother of a six-month-old son, was beaten to death by her husband. "She was a great poet. But, like so many Afghan women, she had to obey her husband's rules," says Nahid Baqi, Anjuman's close friend.
The first death sentence carried out in the new Afghanistan flew in the face of all international standards. A special court, closed to the public, had sentenced military commander Abdullah Shah to death for multiple murders. Shah had no legal representation, and there were signs that he had been tortured. He was killed by a firing squad in April 2004. Afghan judges pronounced at least 21 death sentences last year, although so far none have been carried out.
Unfinished legal reforms
Afghanistan still lacks fair and independent courts. The judicial reform spearheaded by the Italians, say diplomats, "is not yet complete." Many cases are decided by laymen with only a rudimentary education in religious schools. Money can invariably be used to sway a judgment, and prisoners can almost always be bought out of prison.
A prison riot broke out four weeks ago in Afghanistan's main prison at Policharki, 20 kilometers east of Kabul, and at least six prisoners died. Since the days of Soviet occupation, the prison has been notorious for stories of gruesome torture. The uprising was triggered by prisoners protesting poor conditions at the facility and the fact that many are locked up without ever being sentenced or tried in legitimate proceedings.
Much has changed in Afghanistan. Girls are attending school once again, and women make up a quarter of the members of the country's parliament. In Kabul, some women even walk in public without the burqa, and many work -- "some against the will of their husbands," says Economics Minister Farhang, the official in Karzai's government responsible for promoting progress.
At the same time, although religious fundamentalists are no longer in power, up to 80 percent of women, some as young as 12, are still being forced into arranged marriages. For many Afghan women, these arranged marriages quickly turn into a form of imprisonment -- one in which they can only leave their homes with the permission of their husbands.
By accepting the new constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the international community also recognized Islamic law, or sharia, as the fundamental basis of the current legal system. Sharia is also the basis of behavioral guidelines considered strictly part of the private sphere under European law.
But the interpretation of the constitution is a religious matter, with mullahs -- many appointed in the days of the radical Islamic Taliban -- serving as lay judges and interpreting the rule of law as they see fit. Although the country's supreme court holds sway over Afghanistan's lower courts, many of its members are also religious hardliners.
Fundamentalists were also likely behind the Rahman affair, which also highlights the shortcomings of the Afghan constitution, a set of laws that includes concessions to the country's extreme conservatives. In its excitement over the fact that Afghanistan's tribal council, the Loya Jirga, even approved the document, the West overlooked its contradictions. The consequences, as the Rahman case has illustrated, can be disastrous.
Article 2, for example, guarantees freedom of religious expression, but only to the "members of other religions." This means that Afghans born as Muslims are barred from converting to another faith. Incongruously, Article 7 affirms "adherence to the General Declaration on Human Rights," which also includes freedom of religion.
Economics Minister Farhang, the man with the panoramic view of Kabul, says that the country's cabinet will discuss the consequences of the Rahman case. The "gap" in the law will be closed, he says -- otherwise the tens of thousands of expatriate Afghans who have converted to Christianity would lose their national identity.
The Afghan government's policies directly affect Germany. Since last May, most German states are once again sending Afghan refugees back home, especially young, single males. One-hundred-seventy Afghan refugees, including four women, had been deported by December 2005, and it's quite possible that some are converts to Christianity.
If Rahman is released, it may help Karzai in the West, but not at home. Abdul Raulf, imam at Kabul's Herati mosque, believes that if Rahman isn't executed officially, the people will take the matter into their own hands: "His head should be cut off."
And in Afghanistan, Raulf is considered a moderate man.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan