An Afghan woman sued her husband and his family for torturing her. In a unique trial, a court has found them guilty and sentenced them to prison. It's a rare verdict as most women generally keep quiet.
Sahar Gul was treated like a prisoner in her own home for six months. Now 15 years old, she was forced by her brother into marriage.
Her husband and his family had tried to coerce her into prostitution. But she refused. They responded by locking her up in the basement, burning and beating her and ripping out her fingernails.
The scars were fresh when police found her in the northern Afghan province of Baghlan in December last year and set her free. The case sparked a storm of international condemnation.
Gul's husband's father, mother and sister were each sentenced to 10 years imprisonment by an Afghan court on Tuesday, May 9.
Women seldom go to the police
Considering the rampant corruption in Afghanistan's judical system, it is relatively rare that courts side with female plaintiffs. Not only is the country's judicial system corrupt, but the courts are usually run by conservative clergymen.
Hassina Nekzad, head of a women's group in western Afghanistan, says these elements don't like to see women involved in court cases. There is the general opinion, she adds, that women who speak publicly about their private lives are a dishonor to their families. Furthermore, conservatives think a good woman should be silent and take what is dished out.
That is reason why women seldom take matters before a court of law, according to Nekzad. Many fear they will be ostracized by their families and by society.
Nekzad criticizes how women are treated.
"We often see that women go to jail even though they were not the ones to commit the crime," she said. "That shows our courts still think men are the better sex and that women don't deserve any help. As long as this way of thinking continues in our justice system, I don't think anything will change."
Small step for women's rights
Asia expert Verena Harpe of Amnesty International's German division confirms the injustice: women are locked up after being raped and perpetrators remain free. She sees the court's verdict as a victory for women's rights.
"The sentencing can at least be seen as a small contribution towards building trust between women and Afghan courts," said Harpe. "But it will be a long and difficult process."
Maria Bashir from Herat is Afghanistan's female first public prosecutor. She is fighting for a more just system. She is happy that the relatives of Sahar Gul were convicted. But she thinks that 10 years imprisonment is not harsh enough.
"Considering their crimes, 10 years is not justifiable," Bashir said. "The punishment should be much harsher considering legislation for the protection of underage women."
According to Bashir, it is not uncommon that women are tortured and suppressed like in Gul's case. But most of the cases don't end up in court.
Monika Hauser of the women's rights organization Medica Mondiale agrees.
"We have to keep in mind that in this country, especially in the provinces, there are many, many Sahar Guls," she said. "That is why it is of vital importance that laws are finally upheld and that the international community does not relent in exerting pressure on President Hamid Karzai's government."
Many experts fear that the family will bribe officials to avoid doing time. Corruption and nepotism are rampant.
Sahar Gul's husband and his brother are at large. The court found them guilty in absentia. Sahar Gul was present at the courthouse when the sentences were handed down. She wanted severe punishments for her tormentors.
With the help of the Afghan woman's organization "Women for Afghan Women" she will appeal the verdict and ask for longer sentences.
Author: Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi / sb
Editor: John Blau