An Afghan court reversed the convictions of three family members jailed for torturing Sahar Gul, a child bride who had refused to become a prostitute, alarming activists who had celebrated the guilty verdicts as a warning to all those who would seek to reverse the strides made by women in Afghanistan in the past 12 years.
At the same time, hard-line legislators introduced a provision into the criminal prosecution code that would disallow relatives from testifying against each other in a court of law. This small change, if passed into law, would prevent the overwhelming majority of cases of violence against women in Afghanistan from ever reaching court.
"The last two months have really been a parade of horrible for women's rights in Afghanistan," said Heather Barr, an Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, commenting about the proposed change.
"Underage marriage, forced marriage, domestic violence, sale of women – these crimes are almost always committed against women by family members, whether through birth or through marriage," added Barr.
Regarding the current case, the court cancelled the 10-year sentences originally given to Gul’s tormenters, saying there was no proof of attempted murder, the original conviction. Gul’s case shocked Afghanistan and the convictions were celebrated as a huge step forward for women.
The case began when Gul was 12 years old and her brother sold her for close to $4,080 to a family as a bride for one of the family members. When she refused to become a prostitute for them, her mother- in-law, father-in-law and sister-in-law locked her in a basement, where they burned her with hot electrical wires, pulled out her fingernails and twisted her skin with pliers for months.
When she was 15, she escaped to a neighbour’s house who advised her to call the local authorities. When the authorities confronted her mother-in-law, she promised to stop the violence (after trying to fight off the police and screaming to them that she had bought the girl legitimately, meaning that the girl was obligated to do whatever she was ordered.)
The authorities returned Gur to her tormentors, amid allegations that government officials were bribed to keep quiet about the affair. One such official, Rahima Zarifi, the women's affairs chief in Baghlan province, said she had no recollection of the details of the case, or why the girl was sent back to her in-laws. Zarif denied accepting any bribe.
Gul was discovered in December 2011 by a male relative. She was curled up in a dank and dark corner of the cellar, badly malnourished and in critical condition. Unable to walk, she was carried away in a wheelbarrow.
The case attracted widespread attention in Afghanistan and abroad. Three of her in-laws were convicted last year of attempted murder, and each was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The convictions were upheld on appeal, although her husband, who is in his 30s and did not participate in the torture, remains at large.
Last month, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the appeals court, saying that the violence appeared to warrant convictions for assault, not attempted murder, according to lawyers for the defendants.
"After the court reviewed their case, it found out that they were only involved in family violence," Supreme Court spokesman Abdullah Attaee told AFP. He said that the court did not have enough evidence against them. "For now, the court has ruled that the time they have spent in jail is enough for them," he said.
The appeals court agreed, voiding the convictions and ordering that the defendants — Gul's mother-in-law, sister-in-law and father-in-law — be set free. The two women were released after about a year in prison, lawyers said. They were not sure whether the father-in-law was yet out of prison.
As word spread about the release, Afghan women's rights activists reacted with alarm and said they would press to have the three defendants retried.
Manizha Naderi, the executive director of Women for Afghan Women, said, "This poor girl was in the basement for months. If she wasn't rescued, she would be dead. She was starved and burned and had her fingernails pulled out. How is this not attempted murder?"
The courts' decisions make "a statement that violence against women is not that important, that Afghanistan is becoming more conservative," Naderi added.
After spending time in a hospital recovering, Gul has been quietly building a new life for herself, including receiving an education while living in a shelter in Kabul .
"She's doing well and is going to school," Naderi said. "She has a lot of plans for her future, and she says wants to be head of a women's rights organisation."
"She is afraid now, she is scared for her life," Naderi warned about the unexpected release of Gur’s tormentors. "The sister-in-law when she saw her in court said: 'We didn't kill you then, but when I get out, I will kill you.'"
Kimberley Motley, a lawyer from the U.S., joined Gul's legal team after her in-laws’ tormentors' release. She intends to put the trio back in prison, either winning on an appeal or on by retrying the case on new charges of false imprisonment and underage marriage.
Motley also said that neither Gul nor her lawyers were told about the most recent court hearing. "Sahar Gur was not told about this," Motley said. "The prosecutor didn't show up or wasn't informed. I believe the only person in court was the defence lawyer for the accused."