“This is not a man with good options”

Wrote a friend of mine when he sent me an article about the pressure Afghan president Hamid Karzai is under to sign off on the execution orders for dozens of Afghans sentenced to death for capital crimes.

The basic points of the article:

  • More than one hundred Afghans sit on death row.
  • Most have been convicted of crimes such as rape, murder, and kidnapping.
  • The judicial system is a complete mess, and trials that even come close to resembling fairness are a rarity.
  • Afghan civilians, especially women’s advocates, want the executions to take place, so they might deter future violent crimes, especially rape.
  • Afghans want the executions to be public, Karzai wants them to be private.
  • The international community opposes the use of the death penalty, especially in Afghanistan, where one can safely say that innocent people will be executed if executions are carried out at all.
  • Donors have threatened to withhold aid if these pending executions go ahead.
  • Karzai faces a tough bid for re-election next year.

So, what should Karzai to do?  What should international community to do?

Karzai should halt all executions. The use of the death penalty is a violation of the non-derogable right to life and bodily integrity.  It’s wrong ethically, and, furthermore, it won’t deter the kinds of crimes that have ordinary Afghans living in fear anyway.  Only an effective police force and army, and a fair, professional judiciary can do that.  To placate a fearful populace with hangings would be to excuse the failure of the state to provide basic security.  Public hangings may temporarily satisfy an understandable desire to see “justice” served in a country where injustice and lawlessness prevail in all areas of life, but they won’t bring the safety or stability Afghans desperately need.

If he doesn’t sign off on the execution orders, Karzai will come under even more pressure politically (I wonder, do Afghans have a phrase similar to “soft on crime”?), and his chances of re-election may well be badly hurt.  I’d say, so be it.  If he cares about his country’s long-term future, he’ll do what’s right, even if it threatens his job. It is a rare politician in any regime that chooses this path, however.

As for the international community and the donors threatening to withhold aid, I think their dilemma is even more difficult. If the threat of withholding aid is not made, Karzai will have less incentive to indefinitely postpone the executions, and if they’re carried out, the international community fails in its role as a defender of human rights. Individual country donors, especially the taxpayer-funded development agencies, also have to answer to publics back home –in places like Norway, and Canada.  That said, Afghans need life-saving and life-sustaining aid, especially as another long and hungry winter closes in.  Sleepless nights are being had in Kabul over this, of that I’m sure.

The pessimist in me suspects Karzai will just go ahead with the executions, bleeding-heart foreigners and international law be damned.  If Karzai doesn’t sign off on the executions, he will probably blame the internationals for “interfering” in Afghan justice and play up his role as the patriotic president doing his best with one hand tied by the UN and the other by the legions of NGOs.  If this happens, the internationals should be grateful and play along.  Rarely do cynical political games offer the most humane potential solution to any policy dilemma, but this may be one of those rare occasions.

EDIT I: I should add that Karzai doesn’t seem to have a problem with pardoning very nasty criminals when pardons are politically expedient.

EDIT II: A little background, from the Independent (UK):

Under Afghan law, the cases will be sent to the President, Hamid Karzai, who can either sign the execution orders or grant a pardon.

He had earlier agreed to stop executing prisoners until the courts were reformed.

But all that changed in October 2007, when 15 prisoners were dragged from their cells, without warning, and gunned down on an army firing range. The families of the dead claimed they had been beaten before they were shot in the face and chest. Neither the families nor the prisoners were warned of their fate. Elaine Pearson, from Human Rights Watch, said: “President Karzai should suspend the death penalty immediately. More mass executions will be a huge setback for the rule of law in Afghanistan.”