Afghan police have arrested six men in connection with the brutal gang rape of four women last month in Kabul, the Wall Street Journal reported. The attack, which included an 18-year-old and a pregnant woman among the victims, has shocked many in an increasingly lawless Afghanistan, where rapes are rarely prosecuted or even reported.
Afghan police announced the arrests on Tuesday. That same day one of the four victims died in a hospital, public health officials told Khaama Press, an Afghan news site.
The gang rape occurred in the Paghman district of Kabul as the four women and their relatives were driving back from a wedding early in the morning of Aug. 23, according to Afghan police, cited by the Wall Street Journal. A group of men wearing Afghan police uniforms and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles then forced the cars to stop, it said. The men dragged the women into the street, beat and robbed them within earshot of their male relatives, and then raped the women, the WSJ reported. One of the women was raped at least ten times in front of her family, Kabul Police Chief General Zahir Zahir told Khaama Press. The suspects have all confessed to the rapes and theft, according to Zahir. He said the suspects were not Afghan police officers.
The family initially told police that the men had stolen some of their property, but did not report the rapes. Rape remains highly stigmatized in Afghanistan; women who do report rapes have instead been charged with having sex outside of marriage, sometimes receiving the same sentence, or worse, as their abuser.
In a rare statement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai publicly spoke out against the rape, and said that he would not hesitate to sign an execution order for the accused, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul also condemned the attack and called on Afghanistan's judicial bodies "to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice, and we commend the Afghan government for protecting the basic rights of women and girls," the Wall Street Journal reported.
The case, however, is not close to going to trial, Heather Barr, an Afghanistan researcher with Human Rights Watch, told BuzzFeed by phone from London. And, under Afghan law, the accused have the chance to appeal the subsequent ruling twice, she said.
On Wednesday, police had the victims identify their alleged attackers in an event highly covered by the media. Pictures of the women, whose identities remain concealed, circulated on the Internet, where several Facebook groups have appeared calling for the execution of the accused rapists.
Barr, of Human Rights Watch, said, "This case is unusual in that it has both been reported and is in the public eye. I can't think of a similar case."
But she also worried that the outrage over the Paghman rapes would remain short-lived, and not lead to the changes needed to address the prevalence of gender-based violence in Afghanistan. Only 1% of Afghanistan's police officers are women, despite Karzai's repeated pledges to make the security forces more accepting of women, Barr said.
"The government has decided that this is going to be a show trial," Barr said. "Even in that case you still don't get support for the victim."
Afghanistan has no institutionalized means to protect women who report rapes and other forms of sexual assault. In 2009, Karzai signed into law the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law, marking the first time the word rape explicitly appeared in Afghan law. While the new legislation made clear that rape is a crime under Afghan law, the actual weight of the ruling has still not been felt on the ground, Barr said.
"Unfortunately there's been so little effort by the government to enforce this law in the five years since it passed," Barr said. "What the government needs to do is to not focus on one sensationalist case, but to focus everyday on getting every police officer to take these allegations seriously." Barr added, "And that's unfortunately not been the case."