Now’s the Time to Prosecute the Taliban for War Crimes

Sanam Gul, also known as Bibi Sanubar, was a widow, 35 years old and pregnant. She was kept in captivity for three days before being shot to death in a public trial by the Afghan Taliban.

The execution took place in the rural Baghdis province in Western Afghanistan. The “court” that ordered the punishment found Sanam Gul guilty of having an illicit affair. The evidence? Her pregnancy. She received 200 lashes and was then executed. The punishment was carried out by Mohammad Yousuf, the area Taliban commander, amid a crowd of onlookers.

Sanam Gul’s death comes soon after the chilling August 7 executions of 10 medical aid workers returning from a trip to provide free medical care to remote regions of Afghanistan.


These barbaric theatrics meant to intimidate and terrify local populations are not novel tactics for the Taliban. During the time that they controlled Afghanistan, from 1998-2001, such public floggings and executions were frequent. In addition to such tactics, which misuse concepts of Islamic law to instate a reign of terror, the Taliban are also guilty of bloodthirsty killing campaigns that have slaughtered literally thousands of Afghan civilians to date.

A U.N. report released on August 10 revealed that civilian casualties caused by the Taliban have increased nearly 31 percent in the first six months of 2010. This means that over 2400 Afghan civilians have died in the shootings, killings, suicide bombings that the Taliban carry out with impunity in areas which they control.

In the first half of 2010, the executions and assassinations of civilians by the Taliban and other insurgent groups increased by over 95 percent compared to the same time last year, to 183 recorded deaths. The victims were usually accused of  being spies or providing support to international forces. According to Staffan De Mistura, special representative of the secretary general of the U.N.:

Afghan children and women are increasingly bearing the brunt of this conflict; they are being killed and injured in their communities in greater numbers than ever before.

In the near decade since the beginning of the Afghan war, and in the years prior when the Taliban controlled huge chunks of the country, the world has watched while the Taliban wrested all sense of security from Afghan civilians. One of the biggest chasms in the worldwide response to the Taliban’s human rights abuses has been an inability to find a unifying concept of international justice that would hold non-state groups like the Taliban accountable.

It is this view, that only nation-states can be human rights abusers, that must change drastically for groups like the Taliban to be held accountable for their brutality. The lack of an existing system of justice in Afghanistan means that unless international judicial mechanisms are actively involved, Afghan civilians will remain helpless before the bloodthirsty campaign of the Taliban. Women like Sanam Gul will continue to die at their hands in acts of political theater that manipulate faith to keep a population in constant fear. Because of this, Amnesty International is calling for the investigation of Taliban leaders so that they may be prosecuted for war crimes.

Beginning to prosecute the Taliban leaders who so brutally executed Sanam Gul–and have cruelly taken the lives of thousands of other Afghan civilians–is crucial to ensure that these same war criminals are not promoted to positions of power in any post-conflict set up. It is imperative that Taliban human rights abuses be an integral part of current discussions between the United States, Afghanistan and other members of NATO on the future structure of Afghanistan. Unless the international community takes a stand on this issue, Afghan civilians will continue to believe that they will be abandoned by the world, left to endure another regime of barbarism.

Re-posted from Amnesty International USA’s blog, Human Rights Now.


Rafia Zakaria is the first Pakistani American woman to serve as a Director for Amnesty International USA. She is a lawyer and Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Indiana University. She is currently working on her dissertation entitled "Negotiating Identity: Sharia, multiculturalism and Muslim women." Rafia writes a weekly column for the DAWN newspaper which is the largest and oldest English newspaper in Pakistan. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Arts and Letters Daily, the Nation and the American Prospect. She is the only Pakistani American woman recognized by a joint resolution of the Indiana House and Senate for her work on women's rights.