KABUL // Seven Afghan men were sentenced to death on Sunday for raping and robbing women returning from a wedding in a rare case of sexual assault that has shaken the capital and raised concerns over public security.
Police said a large group of men, some dressed in police uniforms, and with assault rifles, stopped a convoy of cars last month in which the women were travelling along with their families in the Paghman district, just outside Kabul.
They dragged four women out of the cars in the middle of the night and raped them in the field near the main road. One of them was pregnant. The victims were also beaten and their jewellery and mobile phones stolen.
Crimes against women are common, but mostly take place inside homes in Afghanistan. But a gang rape by armed men is rare in Kabul and has tapped into a vein of anxiety as foreign troops leave the country and a badly stretched Afghan army and police fight a deadly Taliban insurgency.
Judge Safihullah Mujadidi, in a summary trial televised nationwide, convicted the men of armed robbery and sexual assault.
“Based on criminal law these individuals are sentenced to the severest punishment, which is death sentence,” he said.
The men stood before him in a heavily guarded courtroom.
“We went to Paghman with our families,” one victim told the packed courtroom. “On the way back, they took us. One of them put his gun on my head, the other one took all our jewellery, and the rest started what you already know.”
As demonstrators outside the court demanded the death penalty, applause erupted inside after the Kabul police chief, Zahir Zahir, called for the men to be hanged.
“We want them to be hanged in public, so that it will be a lesson for others,” he said. “We arrested them with police uniforms. They confessed to their crime within two hours of their arrest.”
The assault has led to such an outpouring of rage that president Hamid Karzai told a delegation of women last week that the perpetrators would face the death penalty.
The men can appeal the verdict.
Mr Karzai has to ratify the executions under Afghan law.
Among the demonstrators outside were dozens of activists who demanded speedy justice to instil public confidence in law and order.
“If this act goes unpunished, the women of Afghanistan will continue to be victims,” said rights activist Uma Saeed. “This is really very significant moment I would say, even maybe in the history of Karzai’s government.”
* Reuters with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse