Late last month, the Taliban killed four men and hung their dead bodies in public squares in the northwestern Afghan city of Herat. One lifeless corpse dangled off a crane above throngs of commuters who were stunned at the exhibition and grasping the significance of the moment—a return to the past. The group’s newly appointed mayor declared the killed as kidnappers and boasted about the display of the dead as an effective deterrent. He warned: Other criminals would meet the same fate.
Due process was an additional casualty of the Taliban’s speedy verdict, however. There was no court case, no jury, no one to check the Taliban’s claims.
The hangings came just a day after Mullah Nooruddin Turabi—previously head of the Taliban’s notorious Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice two decades ago and now in charge of prisons—said that the Taliban will resume amputations and executions. “No one will tell us what our laws should be,” he told  the Associated Press, as if severing limbs and stoning women buried up to their chest were not brutal acts but a matter of sovereignty and cultural preference.
His comments terrified Afghans who remember the Taliban’s last stint in power, specifically scenes of public executions at soccer stadiums. Between 1996 and 2001 the Taliban shot convicts at point-blank range, chopped off the arms and feet of alleged thieves, and flogged people for minor offenses. The tales of horrors that took place at the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul have become part of the local folklore in Afghanistan.
The Taliban assert they have reformed since their last time in government, citing the permission they now grant Afghans to use phones and watch television. Yet those self-described reforms haven’t influenced their plans to resume brutal law-and-order policies derived from 7th-century Islamic law, which includes hangings, beheadings, floggings, and stoning, all imposed without the benefit of a fair trial.
The Taliban say the harsh applications of sharia are effective at deterring crime, pointing to other Islamic nations where corporal punishment is legal. “Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates—they all follow sharia and pass the same sentences, but only we are criticized, because we are the Taliban,” said Habib Ur Rehman Agha, a Taliban member based in Kabul. “Until now the Taliban has not punished many people publicly, but it will—because Islam says so. The numbers will probably increase soon.”
The group further defends its eye-for-an-eye philosophy by claiming there is public support for quick legal resolutions based on old customs, placing public executions on a continuum with such other Afghan traditions as exchanging blood money for the families of murder victims for a perpetrator’s clemency.
But the group’s arguments are largely self-serving. Legal observers and Afghan experts said that while retributive justice appeals to a large part of Afghan society, it is because they have been mired in one war after another for decades and have never experienced a more effective criminal justice system. The democratically elected governments of Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani awarded less extreme sentences, but their administrations had other problems such as wide-scale corruption, which hindered the delivery of justice. Most Afghans, experts believe, oppose the Taliban’s stoning of adulterers and the amputation of the hands and feet of thieves.
“The Taliban is flogging people routinely on the streets, and that is seen as insulting more than anything else,” said a legal expert based in Afghanistan who did not want to disclose his name for security reasons. “If the Taliban carries on with it, more people will turn against the group.”
Islamic scholars have long disputed the Taliban’s understanding of sharia, arguing the system allows for moderation through ijtihad—an Islamic legal term for independent reasoning. Foreign Policy’s conversations with activists based in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the UAE—whose interpretation of sharia and application of religious injunctions the Taliban cite as precedent—underscore that those countries’ legal systems are far less extreme than the model the Taliban advocate.
The Taliban say modern education is of no use as the country heads toward economic meltdown and starvation.
To be sure, brutal punishments have been meted out in these countries. In 2019, Saudi Arabia a carried out a mass execution of 37 imprisoned civilians on a single day, officially claiming it was for terrorism-related offenses. They were most likely beheaded with a sword and probably not in one swing. Activists said not only that most of these men were tortured before they were executed but also that they were political dissidents simply killed in the name of state security. Iran is the capital of executions in the Muslim world and recorded at least 13 public executions in 2019—however, that number dropped to one public execution a year later. In the UAE, as far as activists can remember, there have not been any cases of public hangings or beheadings. The last execution was reported in 2015 and was carried out by a firing squad.
However, activists said that while repression is high in these nations and corporal punishment, including capital punishment, is legally allowed, they have all reconsidered their legal norms. No recent instances of amputation of hands or feet have been reported in any of these nations, and no stoning incidents in Saudi Arabia or the UAE have come to light in a long time. Meanwhile, in Iran the last stoning was reported in 2017.
International activists with an ear to the ground said that while their access to these countries is severely restricted and domestic civil society silenced, they believe there has been a change in the behavior of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and, to a lesser degree, Iran. They said a raging but secretive debate among leaders, monarchs, and religious jurists has led to fewer harsh sentences and a greater emphasis on jail terms. Saudi Arabia has explicitly promised a slew of reforms to reduce the discretionary powers of mullahs in order to lure investors.
The consensus among legal experts and activists is that while Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran are in no way a model to be emulated, they do carry out some semblance of legal trials, in which the accused can offer a defense. “In the [United Nations] Human Rights Council all of these countries are criticized, but at the moment the Taliban’s practices are more extreme,” said Charles Norchi, a law professor at the University of Maine who previously covered Afghanistan as a journalist. “Executions are extrajudicial under the Taliban, but in other Islamic countries there is at least a legal process. I don’t condone it, but that is one difference.”
“We no longer live in a world where what a government does to its people is its own business,” he added.
Human rights activists contend that if the Taliban continue to sentence people without fair trials, they will never receive the legitimacy in the international community that they crave—if for nothing than to at least procure frozen funds and keep the country running. However, some argue that engaging with the group is the only way to change its behavior, including when it comes to legal reforms and a more humane justice system.
Sayed Ikram Afzali, the executive director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, said that over the last two decades the Taliban continued to send their mobile courts to provinces where people found it hard to resolve disputes or get justice through the state either because its systems were slow or corrupt or both. “But quick delivery of justice was also often summary justice, without enough evidence,” Afzali said. “Right now the previous system has collapsed and the Taliban have no resources. They are just trying to appear in control and show that they can manage security.”
He added that the Taliban will continue to follow sharia for legal remedy, but if the international community isolated the group then it would resort to the strictest interpretation of the Islamic law and find no motivation to soften sentences. “I believe engagement could give us a chance to reform the legal system under the Taliban,” Afzali said, “but it won’t happen in five or 10 years. It will be a generational change.”
Source: Foreign Policy