The death row widows of Kabul

Afghan law makes no allowance for the abuse that drives wives to kill their husbands. Lianne Gutcher meets three women on hunger strike as they wait to die

For years, Gul Guncha had put up with her violent and abusive husband. He raped his seven-year-old daughter, then married her off to an old man, who also raped her. He sold their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter for 200,000 afghanis (£2,600) and was attempting to find a buyer for their other baby girl. He started beating Gul Guncha and the children when she asked the community for help. But their help was no use – and, one day, she snapped. As he beat them yet again, she grabbed a metal pole used to extract hot bread from the kiln, and clubbed him to death.

"There was only violence in my house, no happiness. I was just tired of my life," she said. "I beat him with an iron rod to the head. Suddenly he fell to the ground but I didn't think he would die. Then the next day the prosecutors came to my house and took me to jail."

In many countries, Gul Guncha's story would have won her sympathy and some leniency under the legal system. But not in Afghanistan, where she was sentenced to death by the primary and secondary courts, then waited seven years to find out whether the Supreme Court would uphold her death sentence.

She is one of three Afghan women on death row in Kabul who have gone on hunger strike in protest at what they say is an unfair and corrupt justice system that has kept them locked up for years in ignorance of their fate.

Aysha Khalil, 52, and Sayeed Begum, 40, were also convicted for murdering their husbands and given the death penalty. Their appeals have dragged on for years. Gul Guncha, 57, admits that she committed the crime but said she acted to protect her children. The two other women say they are innocent. Fighting back tears while speaking to The Independent at Badam Bagh (Almond Garden) female prison in Kabul, Sayeed Begum said she had been too poor to pay the bribe the primary court judge had demanded in return for leniency. Aysha Khalil said she had been forced to sign a false confession. All three said they had long been abandoned by their lawyers, meaning their cases were lost in the legal system and they had no one to plead for leniency or a pardon.

Aysha started her hunger strike on 31 August, threatening to starve herself to death unless she got to know the status of her case. Her decision to refuse food came after prison authorities said she was no longer allowed to make snacks to sell to prison visitors, a job that broke up the monotony of her existence and provided her with a meagre income. "It is better just to die. My situation is very, very bad," said Aysha, who has been on death row since 2004. "I have lost everything: my family, my children. There is no one to support me."

The women also expressed disgust with the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, who they said pardoned would-be suicide bombers but left women like them to rot. Five women are currently on death row in Afghanistan, according to the Ministry of Justice.

"This is destroying me," said Sayeed Begum, who was a school teacher for 18 years. "They release suicide bombers, but not people like me."

She landed in prison when, after a dispute, her second husband accused her of helping to murder her first husband. During her primary court trial she said the court asked her for a bribe of $3,000 (£1,900) in exchange for a five-year sentence. But she was unable to pay this so was sentenced to 20 years in prison. At her appeal trial in 2007, the judge sentenced her to death. Her file is being evaluated.

Gul Guncha was sentenced to death by the first and second courts, but her case was dismissed by the Supreme Court and handed back to the provincial court.

Aysha's brother-in-law, irate that she turned down his marriage proposal after her husband died, accused her of murdering her husband. She was sentenced to death by the primary and secondary courts, but the Supreme Court refused to accept the decision of the secondary court and referred her case back to the local court.

All three women's cases are stuck in a legal system that sees cases bounce around for years between three courts: the primary court, the secondary (or appeals) court and the Supreme Court. After the Supreme Court passes a death sentence, the judge writes to the president to sign off the execution. "Unfortunately, our legal system is weak," said Shamsullah Ahmadzai, the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission's Kabul office. "They [the courts] don't follow the Afghan constitution and don't implement it [the law] on time."

Mr Ahmadzai said that in reality, the women had been handed two punishments. "Being in prison for eight years and then hanging. This is really unacceptable according to global human rights' rules," he said.

Farid Ahmad Najibi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, said he was aware of the women's hunger strike and that their cases were still going through the various courts. He added that it was unlikely that Mr Karzai would ever sign off on their executions. If they were not pardoned by Mr Karzai, they would probably spend up to 25 years in jail.

"As far as I know, the President will not approve [execution] because since this government came to power no woman has ever been hanged, and the presidential palace has never approved hanging a woman," said Mr Najibi. The Afghan President pardons prisoners every year to mark national and religious holidays. Last year, for example, he pardoned 115 women prisoners – including those who were charged with murder – and cut the sentences of 130 female prisoners, according to Mr Najibi.

The director of the women's prison, Colonel Amir Mohammed Amwajpoor, said he brought two officials from the Ministry of Women's Affairs to see the trio. He said they promised to do something about their cases. "I have personally written a letter to the Minister of Justice and the Supreme Court," Colonel Amwajpoor added.

Nazia Faizi, the head of supervision at the Ministry of Women's Affairs' legal unit, said she had taken bananas and apples to the women and promised them that justice would be done. "We told [them] we will release them in accordance with the legal system of Afghanistan and that there is no need to go on hunger strike again. We wrote to the Ministry of Justice asking them to take steps towards releasing them."

But such words sound hollow to the three women, who still have no hard evidence that their circumstances will change. Asked if she was optimistic that her hunger strike would help resolve her situation, Sayeed Begum said: "I hope President Karzai reads about me and that he will make a decision. Many people say they will help me. But nothing ever happens."

The grim statistics

304 The number of women held in Afghan prisons in 2007. The majority had been incarcerated with their children.

10,604 The number of prisoners held in Afghan jails in 2007, compared with just 600 in 2001.

50 The estimated percentage of women prisoners detained for 'moral crimes', according to a United Nations report in 2008.

66 Percentage of women at Lashkar Gah jail held in 2008 for alleged 'illegal sexual relations'. Most were believed to be rape victims.

5 The number of women currently on death row in Afghanistan, according to the Ministry of Justice.