Afghan Couple Stoned to Death on Taliban Orders

, by NORDLAND Rod

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban on Sunday ordered their first public executions by stoning since their fall from power nine years ago, killing a young couple who had unsuccessfully tried to elope, according to Afghan officials and an eyewitness.

The punishment was carried out by hundreds of the victims’ neighbors and even their family members in a village in northern Kunduz Province, according to Nadir Khan, 40, a local farmer and Taliban sympathizer, who was interviewed by telephone.

As a Taliban mullah prepared to read the judgment of a religious “court,” Mr. Khan said the lovers, a 25-year-old man named Khayyam and a 19-year-old woman named Siddiqa, defiantly confessed in public to their relationship.

“They said, ‘We love each other no matter what happens,’ ” Mr. Khan said.

The executions were the latest in a series of cases where the Taliban have imposed their harsh version of Shariah law for social crimes, reminiscent of their behavior during their decade-long rule of the country. In recent years Taliban officials have sought to play down their bloody punishments of the past as they concentrated on building up popular support.

“We see it as a sign of a new confidence on the part of the Taliban in the application of their rules, like they did in the ’90s,” said Nader Nadery, a senior commissioner on Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission. “We do see it as a trend, they’re showing more strength in recent months, not just in attacks, but including their own way of implementing laws, arbitrary and extrajudicial killings.”

The stoning deaths, along with similarly brazen attacks in northern Afghanistan, were also a sign of growing Taliban strength in parts of the country where until recently they had been weak or absent. In their home regions in southern Afghanistan, Mr. Nadery said, the Taliban have already been cracking down.

“We’ve seen a big increase in intimidation of women and more strict rules on women,” he said.

Perhaps most worrisome were signs of support for the action from mainstream religious authorities in Afghanistan. The head of the Ulema Council in Kunduz Province, Mawlawi Abdul Yaqub, interviewed by telephone, said Monday that stoning to death was the appropriate punishment for an illegal sexual relationship, although he declined to give his view on this particular case.

And less than a week earlier, the national Ulema Council brought together 350 religious scholars in a meeting with government religious officials, who issued a joint statement Aug. 10 calling for more punishment under Shariah, apparently referring to stoning, amputations and lashings.

Failure to implement such “Islamic provisions,” the council statement said, was hindering the peace process and encouraging crime.

The controversy could have implications for efforts by Afghan officials to reconcile with Taliban leaders and draw them into power-sharing talks. Afghan officials, supported by Western countries, have insisted Taliban leaders would have to accept the Afghan Constitution, which guarantees women’s rights, and not expect a return to Shariah law. Moderate supporters of the Taliban have said they would not make a return to Shariah law a condition of their participation.

The stoning deaths were confirmed by Afghan officials in the area on Monday. Mahbubullah Sayedi, a spokesman for the Kunduz governor’s office, condemned the executions, and said there was ample provision in Afghan law for prosecuting someone if they were accused of adultery or other social crimes. “We have courts here, and we can solve such cases through our judicial organizations,” he said. “This act is against human rights and against our national Constitution.”

The couple eloped when Mr. Khayyam was unable to persuade family members to allow him to marry the young woman, identified by authorities only by her first name, Siddiqa. Siddiqa was engaged to marry a relative of her lover, but was unwilling to do so, according to Mr. Khan.

Mohammed Ayub, the governor of nearby Imam Sahib district, also confirmed the stoning deaths, which took place in the local bazaar in Mullah Quli village, in Archi District, a remote corner of Kunduz Province close to Tajikistan.

“The problem is that almost 30 percent of Archi District area is under Taliban control so it is hard for our government forces to go to some of those places,” Mr. Sayedi said.

The couple eloped to Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan, staying with distant relatives, but family members persuaded them to return to their village, promising to allow them to marry. (Afghan men are legally allowed to marry up to four wives). Once back in Kunduz, however, they were arrested by the Taliban, who convened local mullahs from surrounding villages for a religious court.

After the Taliban proclaimed the sentence, Siddiqa, dressed in the head-to-toe Afghan burqa, and Khayyam, who had a wife and two young children, were encircled by the male-only crowd in the bazaar. Taliban activists began stoning them first, then villagers joined in until they killed first Siddiqa and then her lover, Mr. Khan said. No women were allowed to attend, he said.

Mr. Khan estimated that some 200 villagers participated in the executions, including Khayyam’s father and brother, and Siddiqa’s brother, as well as other relatives, with a larger crowd of onlookers who did not take part.

“People were very happy seeing this,” Mr. Khan maintained, saying the crowd was festive and cheering during the stoning. “They did a bad thing.”

A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, praised the action.

“We have heard about this report and are trying to get information from our friends in Kunduz about the stoning,” he said, interviewed by cellphone. “But let me tell you that according to Shariah law, if someone commits a crime like that, we have our courts and we deal with such crimes based on Islamic law.”

Mr. Nadery, from the human rights commission, pointed to a string of recent such cases of summary justice by the Taliban. In northwestern Badghis Province on Aug. 8, a 41-year-old widow, who was made pregnant by a man she said promised to marry her, was convicted of fornication by a Taliban court. She was given 200 lashes with a whip and then shot to death, according to Col. Abdul Jabar, a provincial police official, who said the killing was ordered by the local Taliban commander, Mullah Yousef in Qadis District.

Waheed Omer, a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, said Mr. Karzai was “deeply saddened and grieved when he heard that news.”

Time magazine focused widespread indignation on Afghanistan recently by putting on its cover a picture of an 18-year-old woman from Uruzgan Province whose nose and ears were cut off by her Taliban husband after she had fled her child marriage to him. And the cases of two 13 and 14-year-old child brides who were flogged last January in front of their village for trying to flee their husbands in remote Ghor Province were also connected to Taliban activity, Mr. Nadery said. The warlord who ordered their floggings had previously supported the government but has now apparently gone over to the Taliban, he said.

The human rights commission, which investigated that incident, released videotapes of the floggings.

Amnesty International condemned the stonings, calling them the first such executions since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. “The Taliban and other insurgent groups are growing increasingly brutal in their abuses against Afghans,” said Sam Zarifi, an Amnesty International official.

By ROD NORDLAND
Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting.