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Afghanistan moves towards a wide use of executions

The Afghan government executed nine people last week. The move follows reports that President Hamid Karzai has recently approved death sentences for at least 111 people on death row in Afghanistan. It is widely thought that, by approving these executions, President Karzai is trying to bolster his popularity among the Afghan people, who increasingly complain of rising criminality and the government's failure to impose the rule of law. These latest executions are the first since October 2007, when the government executed 15 people. They signal a potential change back to the times of Taliban rule when the death penalty was widely used. "This may be just the beginning of a campaign by some authorities to reintroduce the harsh policies of the Taliban," said Sam Zarifi Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director. "The Afghan government has a right and responsibility to bring to justice those suspected of criminal offences, but for justice to prevail, the proceedings must meet basic international standards of fairness and comply with human rights standards. The death penalty constitutes the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment" The death penalty is handed down in Afghanistan for crimes such as kidnapping, murder and rape. However, the majority of court proceedings are marred by serious substantive and procedural irregularities, such as the failure of police and the judiciary to investigate cases properly, political interference in the investigative and judicial processes, and lack of access for detainees to a defence lawyer. According to Afghan law, all death sentences have to be endorsed by three courts (primary, appeal and Supreme Court) before they go to the president who has to sign the execution order, or pardon those accused. The Taliban used the death penalty until the end of their rule in 2001. After they fell from power the new government observed a self-imposed moratorium that ended three years later with the execution of Abdullah Shah in April 2004. "The sudden rush in executions is of serious concern, given that Afghanistan's fledgling justice system is largely incapable of providing fair and sound trials," said Sam Zarifi. "The authorities should impose an immediate moratorium on all executions in Afghanistan, with a view to abolishing the use of this horrific punishment." President Karzai recently said in a public address that he would not bow to pressure on his government from the international community or human rights organizations to end the use of the death penalty. "We call on President Karzai to publicly reaffirm the commitment given by his Chief of Staff to Amnesty International in 2003 that there would be a moratorium on executions while judicial reform is carried out," said Sam Zarifi.