Page last updated at 16:37 GMT, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Rough justice for Afghan women inmates

By Jill McGivering
BBC News, Afghanistan

Lashkar Gah prison
Lashkar Gah prison holds seven women prisoners

Lashkar Gah prison is the biggest in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. It is a mud-walled structure with square watchtowers and heavy iron gates.

I waited in a dingy concrete room, outside the main prisoner block, until the prison's seven female prisoners were brought through, slight figures swathed at first in voluminous burkas.

Zardana was the first to speak, a feisty young woman wearing make-up and an array of glittering jewellery.

She had been in prison for five years, she said, and was now halfway through a 10-year sentence. She was convicted of killing her husband, a crime she denied.

The real reason she was still locked up, she insisted, was because she did not have money to bribe her way out, as others did.

You wouldn't keep an animal in those rooms
Woman prisoner

"It's obvious what goes on," she said. "I've seen more than 30 women released. There was one sentenced to 16 years and they let her out after eight months just because her father paid off the judge."

The other women, listening in, nodded agreement. One said she had been released herself after 18 months because the judge thought her parents had money. When they did not pay him, she was re-imprisoned.

'All alone'

Most of the young women were either teenagers or in their early twenties.

The youngest, Sekeena, was one of the most shy, clamping her scarf across her babyish face and watching me with nervous brown eyes.

In Islamic law, men and women have equal rights but the trouble is that's not respected in Afghanistan
Gohar-taaj Ahadi
Women and Children's Justice Commission

The other women had to press her before she finally agreed to tell me her story.

When she was 13, she said, she was engaged to a neighbour's son. Just four days before the wedding celebration, some other boys abducted her. When they took her back to her family, she was shamed and arrested for illegal sex. She was sentenced to seven years in jail. Her family accused her of going off willingly with the boy and has now disowned her.

"Now I have no family, no parents, no brother, no sister," she said. "I am all alone. What kind of life am I living here? It's a life but not a human life."

I was not allowed to enter the living quarters and see them for myself. The women told me that they shared two simple rooms which were cold and wet in winter. The roof leaked when it rained, they said, and there was no proper toilet.

"You wouldn't keep an animal in those rooms," said one girl.

Reform efforts

Afterwards I spoke to the prison governor, Colonel Gulam Ali. He said women tend to get lighter sentences than men in Afghanistan - and the women here had all been subject to a proper judicial process, from police evidence to court trial and conviction.


I asked him about the women's allegations of corruption. He nodded. "Yes," he said, "I'm not going to deny that happens. Everyone from the president to the international community knows there is corruption in the administrative and justice system and it must be addressed."

An international programme is trying to introduce reform.

At the moment, all the judges and prosecution lawyers working in Helmand province are men - and there are no defence lawyers to represent the accused. The first defence lawyers are now being trained and will start work here soon.

Gohar-taaj Ahadi is the head of the Women and Children's Justice Commission, which has been set up to look at ways of educating women about their rights and supporting them in court.

"The judiciary system all over Afghanistan tends to side more with men than women," she told me.

"Women here get convicted and no-one supports them. In Islamic law, men and women have equal rights but the trouble is that's not respected in Afghanistan."

A functioning judicial system is a basic hallmark of democracy. Reform is underway but in Afghanistan, many people - and women in particular - are still struggling to get the justice they deserve.

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