Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Rape Surrounded by Impunity and Silence

The few victims brave enough to go public face an uphill battle to secure justice, despite a one-off intervention by the president.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
The old man is disabled and unable to speak, but he cries and gesticulates as he tries to demand justice for his young daughter, who was raped by five armed men.

The case of 12-year-old Anisa has electrified her home province of Sar-e-Pul in northern Afghanistan.

Her family has chosen to come forward, a courageous move in a society where sexual taboos make it almost impossible to report rape, and where the victim is often punished by her family for bringing shame upon them.

Anisa’s family invited journalists to hear her story, and demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice.

“It was a very brutal assault,” Anisa told reporters in the city of Sar-e-Pul.

She was raped in front of her family in early June by armed men who broke into her house, in her home district of Baghawi, about ten kilometres from the provincial capital.

“Nobody paid us any attention,” said Anisa’s mother, crying as she recounted the family’s odyssey through the criminal justice system.

“We went everywhere for over a month, but it did not help. The perpetrators are walking around free in the bazaar, and the [former] provincial police chief supports them. Nobody cares about us.”

Ali Khan, Anisa’s uncle, said, “We complained to the police chief, but he threatened me and cursed me and told me not to make a big deal out of it.”

Provincial police chief Abdul Khaleq Samimi, who has since been dismissed, denied that he was covering for criminals, and insisted he had been pursuing the case.

He hinted that a tribal feud may have lain behind the attack.

When the family finally decided to go public, the resulting media coverage forced the government to act.

President Hamed Karzai condemned the rape and called for severe punishment for the offenders.

He assigned the interior minister and the deputy chief of the National Security Directorate to pursue the case. As a result of their investigation, police chief Samimi and four other officials were removed from their posts in mid-July and are facing charges of criminal negligence.

One of the accused rapists has been arrested, while the other four have fled.

“We are searching for them, but they seem to have escaped,” said Mohammad Bilal Niram, the new police chief in Sar-e-Pul.

With four of her assailants still at large, Anisa’s victory is far from complete. Still, the government’s energetic reaction to her case marks a radical departure from the usual official response to rape cases.

“Karzai’s action in this case has given us some hope,” said Abdul Latif, a resident of Sar-e-Pul.

Still, he cautioned, the government needed to apply the law equally to all.

“As the proverb says, ‘you cannot have two different kinds of weather over one roof’,” he said. “If this happens, people will start distrusting the government again.”

Another Sar-e-Pul resident, Haji Besmillah, was more critical.

“It was just a symbolic action. There are hundreds of such cases in Afghanistan where the government is silent,” he said.

All too often, the government refuses to get involved in cases of sexual assault. Even when an accused rapist is apprehended, he is often freed after paying bribes, say those involved in rape cases.

In May of this year, two men convicted of a brutal gang rape in 2006 were freed after serving only two years of an 11-year sentence, reportedly by apresidential pardon.

Presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada told the BBC that it was “impossible that President Karzai could knowingly have signed a pardon for rapists”.

Whatever the facts behind their release, the convicted men now walk free. The victim, Sara, is demanding that they be re-incarcerated.

Cases where the victim and her family demand punishment for the offenders are all too rare. The conspiracy of silence leads to a culture of impunity, with the result that the incidence of rape is becoming increasingly frequent, especially in the north.

“We have received ten cases of rape so far this year,” said Qazi Sayed Mohammad Sameh, regional head of the Afghan independent human rights commission in northern Afghanistan. “This represents a major increase over previous years.”

The cases include girls from five to 15 years of age, he said, and most likely represent just a small fraction of the actual number.

“Most victims’ families are not ready to let us know,” he said.

Part of the reason for the increase is the growing power of armed militias in the north, he said.

“Armed men carry out sexual assaults using their power,” he told IWPR.

Another reason is the high cost of weddings, which make marriage a distant dream for many young men, he added.

“A lot of people cannot afford to get married, so they quench their sexual urges by abusing children, who make easy targets,” he said.

In the vast majority of cases, victims are too intimidated to complain. They can face retribution by powerful local militias, or even from their own families.

Many rape victims are killed by their relatives because of the perceived “shame” attached to the crime. Those who survive are isolated by their families and communities, and have little chance of marrying and pursuing a normal life.

Afghans are growing increasingly impatient with the lack of government action on sexual assault.

“When has a rapist been executed in public?” asked Esa Khan, a resident of Sar-e-Pul. “If people see that there is no punishment for this crime, then they too can go out and commit similar actions.”

He cited the case of a 16-year-old who was raped in Sar-e-Pul in February, allegedly by the son of a member of parliament. The young man accused in the case confessed, but although he appears to be over 20, he was treated as a juvenile and sent to a detention centre.

The young man’s father is said to be a former warlord. Local residents say the power he wields protected his son, and they expect the rapist to be freed soon.

The victim took refuge with the human rights office, fearing that she might be killed by her own family, say people close to the case.

The family finally relented and supported her in her fight to have the rapist prosecuted; they are now demanding that the case be transferred to the judicial system in Kabul.

“We do not believe in provincial courts because [the accused man’s relatives] are very powerful there and they rule over everybody,” said one of the girl’s relatives. “Nobody can punish the son in that province because his father owns the law there.”

Analysts argue that one-off presidential decrees like the one issued in the most recent Sar-e-Pul case are not the solution – the law must be implemented equally,

“The president's decree regarding the punishment of the rapists shows the weakness of the law in Afghanistan,” said Surosh Kazimi, who heads a network of civil society and human rights organisations in the north.

Rather than dealing with cases by decree, he said, the president should insist that existing laws be implemented.

“This is not an exceptional matter to be resolved by an exceptional decree from the president,” he said. “It is a social problem which can be solved with the rule of law.

“Sexual assaults take place almost every day in Afghanistan. Is the president going to issue a decree every day? That just isn’t possible.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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