Five Afghan gang rapists to be hanged today; UN rights chief calls for stay of execution

KABUL (AFP) - Five Afghan men are due to be hanged on Wednesday for the gang rape of four women after a trial that was criticised by the United Nations and rights' groups amid a nationwide outcry over the savage attack.

Then-president Hamid Karzai called for the men to be hanged even before their trial was held last month, and he signed their death sentences shortly before leaving office a week ago.

The armed gang members, wearing police uniforms, stopped a convoy of cars returning to Kabul at night from a wedding in Paghman, a scenic spot near the capital popular with day-trippers.

The attackers tied up men in the group before raping at least four of the women and stealing valuables from their victims.

They were found guilt at a nationally-televised trial that lasted only two hours, and the sentences were quickly confirmed by the appeals court and the Supreme Court.

"The court's verdict on the execution of five men guilty in the Paghman robbery and rape case will be implemented tomorrow," Atta Mohammad Noori, chief of staff at the attorney general's office, told AFP Tuesday.

"It is set to happen, unless there is a last-minute change in the decision."

The crime in the early hours of August 23 has become a symbol of the violence that women face in Afghanistan, despite reforms since the Taleban era.

But the court process raised major concerns, with the UN high commissioner for human rights and Amnesty International calling for President Ashraf Ghani, who was sworn in last week, to stay the death penalties.

"The proceedings... risk denying adequate justice to both the victims of this terrible crime and the accused," the UN agency said in a statement.

Amnesty said the trials had been hurried, giving lawyers little time to prepare the defence. It was only nine days between the arrests and the handing down of death sentences by the primary court.

"(The trials) have been marred by inconsistencies, un-investigated torture claims and political interference," Amnesty said.

"(Karzai) himself said that he urged the Supreme Court to hand down death sentences. These and similar statements undermined the prospects of a fair trial and the defendants' rights to a presumption of innocence."

The group said Ghani "must ensure that the alleged torture by police of the defendants is independently and thoroughly investigated".

International donors, including the European Union, have also lodged their objection to the death penalties.

Women's rights have been central to the multi-billion-dollar international development effort in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taleban regime in 2001.

Under the Taleban regime's harsh version of Sunni Islamic law, women were forced to wear the all-enveloping burqa, banned from jobs, and forbidden even to leave the house without a male chaperone.

The Taleban, who launched a resilient insurgency after being ousted, threaten a comeback as US-led NATO combat troops withdraw from the country.

Ghani's office was not immediately available to comment on the case.

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