15 years’ jail for fleeing from a cruel husband
Exclusive: Inside the Kabul jail where a battered wife serves a longer term than a suicide bomber
At the Badam Bagh women's prison in Kabul, home to 150 female inmates and 70 of their children, the chief warden, Lt Col Zarafshan, lowers her voice. "Because of my pain, my hurt and my sense of injustice, I am telling you this," she says. "If we had a good justice system only about ten of these women would be in prison."
Although I see an occasional rat scuttling across the floor, and there is a somewhat putrid smell in the air, the conditions at Badam Bagh - it means 'The Almond Orchard' - are not as bad as I had expected. What is harrowing is the parody of justice.
Afghan women can still be imprisoned for "moral crimes". These include running away from home, defying family wishes regarding the choice of a spouse, adultery and elopement.
A recent UN report stated that at least half of women imprisoned in Afghanistan are there for moral crimes. Zarafshan puts the proportion a lot higher.
She summons into her office Gul-Khanum, a 44-year-old woman from a rural district. She has two ink spots on her forehead and chin: traditional markings tattooed on the most beautiful young girls. But now she has knife scars running down her neck, arms and face. Her thumb has been crudely sewn back on where a bullet went through her hand.
Gul-Khanum's husband accused her of cuckolding him with her own cousin. The husband shot dead the cousin then went about maiming his wife before the police arrived at the scene.
I ask if her husband's accusations were true. "How could I do something like that? My cousin was like my son," she replies through tears. Gul-Khanum has been in prison for three months with no charge brought against her. Her husband is in prison elsewhere.
The US Department of State's 2009 Human Rights Report for Afghanistan says that police and prosecutors detain suspects for an average of nine months without charge.
The report also explains that detention of women is often at the request of other family members, with the criminal act of 'Zina' - strictly, fornication or adultery - used to justify a broad spectrum of social offences.
There are a number of women incarcerated for reporting crimes against them. Others are detained as "proxies" for their husbands or male relatives.
"What is he doing here?" asks one of the inmates (top left), looking up at me with kohl-lined eyes as Zarafshan shows me round the cells. "He's come to increase your sentence!" jokes the warden.
This woman was a failed suicide bomber. She was discovered at a police checkpoint wearing an explosive vest.
"The big question for me," says Zarafshan, "is why someone doing a suicide attack gets three years and a woman who is plainly innocent and hasn't killed anyone can be sentenced to 20 years?"
There is an explanation. The warden tells me the suicide bomber belonged to a criminal gang who had paid a bribe to have her sentence commuted to three years. "Money decides trials and imprisonment," said Zarafshan, "There is no justice here, only money."
The warden has invited me to meet Shahperai (top right). She is a delicate and softly spoken 22-year-old, in the ninth month of a 15-year sentence.
Aged 12, she was married off to a 39-year-old man. She has four children already. "My husband was one of our neighbours on our street. I used to call him Uncle," Shahperai explains. "I didn't know that one day he would come and take me to marry him."
She tells me her husband was a drug addict who systematically abused her, verbally and physically. Eventually she ran away with another man with whom she remarried and conceived another child. She was arrested after her first husband tracked her down in Kabul. Her new child was born behind bars in Badam Bagh.
"I regret my crime a lot. I know now what I did was wrong," Shahperai tells me. "But from the moment I was born into this world, I have not had one good day. Not one piece of luck."
Human Rights Watch report that nearly 90 per cent of women in Afghanistan complain of domestic abuse, while 70 per cent of marriages are arranged and, according to the US Department of State, 60 per cent of brides are still under the age of 16.
"My life is destroyed now," said Shahperai. "When they announced in court that I have 15 years I was happy, because I have nowhere to go. At least I am safe here."
Behind the razor-wired walls of Badam Bagh, she spends her days weaving jackets and socks to be sold on the outside in order to support her newborn child.
"My dream would be to have a beautiful and peaceful life outside of prison," she says, "but this is not possible now." ·