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20 Female Afghan Prisoners Go Free Under Presidential Amnesty

Most were in jail for social code violations such as adultery. But Kabul police chief says he'll continue making such arrests.

November 11, 2002|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — Even as this capital's police chief vowed to continue arresting women for offenses such as adultery and dating men not chosen by their families, 20 imprisoned on such charges were released here Sunday in an amnesty authorized by President Hamid Karzai.

Some had been locked up under the Taliban, the hard-line Islamic regime that was overthrown by a U.S.-led coalition a year ago, but many were tossed in jail under Karzai's government, mostly for social code violations or property crimes. The president said he granted them pardons to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.

As the women, who spent between five months and two years behind bars, walked out, some clutched children who had been incarcerated with them if there was no one else to care for them. While inside, the women wore street clothes with head scarves, but they wore burkas when they emerged.

Meanwhile, two of the 10 women left behind in the jailhouse threw themselves at the feet of the guards, begging to be let go too.

"Why don't you release all of us? I have four children," said Jamillah, sobbing. She said she was thrown in jail after running away from her husband to her uncle's house.

Authorities expected the remaining women to be released soon from the facility, where about six inmates are confined in each 6-by-9-foot cell. The United Nations and human rights groups have criticized the tough prison conditions, which include a lack of medical care, poor hygiene and vermin.

Outside, Jamillah's mother, Rahima, was waiting with other prisoners' relatives in the hopes that her daughter would be among those pardoned.

Clad in a white scarf that covered her weathered face and dyed orange hair, Rahima said Jamillah's husband had turned her in to police for running off with a cousin.

The younger woman had spent 1 1/2 years in prison, her mother said, while her four children remained home with their father.

Among those released was Fahima, a round-faced woman wearing a black veil. She said she waited three years for her husband to come back after he divorced her, but then her father insisted she marry a man in the southern city of Kandahar, with whom she lived for several years before leaving him. He pressed charges against her.

Another woman freed, Safura, holding the 1-year-old daughter who had been with her, said she spent two months in jail after she was falsely accused of killing her husband's brother. Another brother, who disliked her, had accused her of murder out of personal enmity, she said.

Noor Bugun, in a blue burka with the front pulled back so that her face was visible, was also at the gate, waiting for the release of her daughter, Salima, 17, who was imprisoned for four months after she refused to marry the man her family had chosen for her years earlier.

The fiance spent eight years in Iran, where he married someone else, and when he returned, Salima didn't want to marry him, her mother said. The would-be father-in-law pressed charges against Salima.

Although the repressive Taliban, which refused to let girls go to school or leave their homes without burkas, is gone, the crimes Afghan women continue to be accused of remain debatable. Often, it is the women's families who take matters to the police.

Kabul Police Chief Gen. Abdul Basir said Sunday that his men would go on making such arrests if a husband or family pressed charges.

"They will be prosecuted if they want to marry someone else" -- other than men chosen by their families -- "or if they have a husband and want to live with somebody else illegally," he said.

Asked whether the police shouldn't be concentrating on pursuing more dangerous criminals, the chief -- a tall, former senior commander with the Northern Alliance, which had fought the Taliban -- said that if his men didn't act in such cases, their negligence would lead to serious crimes.

"If we don't listen to the families, they will kill the women themselves," Basir said.

In some cases, fathers, who head the households in this patriarchal society, relent.

Nazer Husain, 65, a farmer wearing a beat-up blue-and-white turban, was waiting outside the prison hoping that his 20-year-old daughter, Safia, would be released. She had run away with a boy she liked, spurning the man -- a cousin -- her family had selected for her.

Husain had turned her in to police nine days before, he said, "because it wasn't good that she went with that boy without my permission." He noted that she had also stolen his watch and $1,200.

The father said he had wanted to punish Safia in the most severe way he could think of. He said he still believes that families should decide whom their daughters should marry.

Nevertheless, if she returned the money and the watch, Husain said, he planned to give her to the boy she liked.

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