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A tragedy that shocked Afghanistan

Masood SaifullahMarch 24, 2015

Thousands of people have taken to the streets of Kabul demanding justice for a woman brutally beaten to death after being falsely accused of burning a copy of the Koran. DW examines what may have triggered the incident.

Afghanistan Lynchmord Demonstration
Image: DW/H. Sirat

On Thursday March 19, 2015, an angry mob brutally killed 27-year-old Farkhunda near a Kabul mosque after she had been accused of burning copy of the Koran. Video footage of the incident shows the woman, who was wearing a hijab, trying to convince a group of men that she was innocent, but to no avail. One of the perpetrators is even heard accusing her of having been sent by the US.

Dozens of people including children started beating her, shouting "God is great" in Arabic. The footage then shows Farkhunda with her face covered in blood, still trying to convince the mob of her innocence. A young man pushes her, she falls down and people continue beating her. A few minutes later, images show the victim, who is no longer able to stand, being pushed from a rooftop and kicked on her face.

At this moment, police have surrounded Farkhunda to try to save her from the mob, but angry men get a hold of the victim, who now seems to be dead or unconscious. She is then run over by a car and set alight before being thrown in the Kabul River. At least two men in police uniforms were among those witnessing the incident.

Afghanistan Lynchmord Demonstration
This is the first time in 14 years such an incident has taken place in the Afghan capitalImage: DW/H. Sirat

Looking for a reason

While the cause of the brutal killing remains unclear, different versions of events have been circulating on Afghan social and local media. One version tells that Farkhunda, who graduated from a madrassah in Kabul, was preaching to other women against superstition when a local mullah got into an argument with her.

This mullah, who is said to be in police custody, was allegedly making money by selling Tawiz (a piece of paper given by some mullahs to cure diseases) to other women. He is believed to have started the rumor that Farkhunda burned the Koran. However, this has no been confirmed by the authorities.

Eyewitnesses told DW that they did not see any evidence of the Koran being set on fire and that Farkhunda was killed on the basis of a rumor. Afghanistan's Interior Minister, Nurulhaq Ulomi, confirmed on March 23 that no such evidence had been found, adding that the incident seems to have been planned, and that 13 civilians and 13 police officers were arrested in connection to the crime.

Moreover, Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani set up a commission to investigate the killing and prosecute the perpetrators.

Taking to the streets

This is the first time in 14 years such an incident has taken place in the Afghan capital. Activists warn that killings such as this one may strengthen support for "Islamic State" (IS) ideology and the extremism some fear is emerging in Afghanistan.

As new video images of the incident emerged, people across the conflict-ridden country took to the streets in protest, with the government and rights groups condemning the incident. "We are fighting against the Taliban and IS, but what is difference between the government and those groups when incident like this take place," Sohiala, who like many other Afghans is only known by her first name, told DW during a demonstration in Kabul on Monday.

Mehrab Hussain Sherzad, who is in his late 60s, was also among the demonstrators. He said the incident reveals how easily many Afghans can be misguided by those seeking to use religion for their political and personal purposes.

"There were hundreds of people present when the crime took place. We are all involved in this incident because it is our society. We have created Taliban and IS," he added.

Afghanistan Lynchmord an Frau Beerdigung
Women carried Farkhunda's body and buried herImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Hossaini

Calls for justice

Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament, also praised the civil movement in support of Farkhunda: "This incident woke up the nation. It is tragic but the brutal killing of Farkhunda taught a lesson to Afghans," she said.

Reactions to the incident have been as unusual as the incident itself. Women carried Farkhunda's body and buried her. Moreover, men and women have been taking to the streets day and night, lighting candles for Farkhonda and asking the Afghan government to dispense justice.

"If the government punishes those who have taken part in this crime, Afghans will not act in this way in the future and people will be sure that, in cases like these, justice will be served, Shukria Barakzai said.

Nevertheless, the incident also triggered different reactions. While social media users and women rights activists condemned the killing as barbaric, anti-Islamic and inhumane, some government officials and religious leaders praised the actions of the mob justifying it as "protecting Islamic values."