When I saw the video of the Taliban’s latest public execution, it immediately brought back terrible memories of the first such execution that I witnessed. That one was also the work of the Taliban, and I saw it at very close range, in Kabul’s main soccer stadium in 1998.
Back then, I was working for a British journalist, and she asked to go to one of the public executions that had become regular weekly events after the Taliban had taken control of Afghanistan two years earlier, in 1996.
Everyone was aware of these executions, but I had avoided going because I didn’t think they were right and I had no interest in seeing any more violence. I had grown up in Kabul, where tens of thousands of people were killed during a civil war earlier in that decade.
A Public Event
When we arrived at the stadium, we were taken onto the field, close to one goal post. Just after 2 p.m., the stadium began to fill with people. Dozens of kids with cigarettes, snacks and refreshments stacked neatly on carts sold their goods to the people in the stands.
The crowd fell silent when a dark green Toyota pickup truck rolled into the stadium, driving slowly toward the goal post where we were standing. A group of young Taliban emerged, their distinctive black and white turbans low over their tanned foreheads.
A Taliban judge began reading the murder verdict against the condemned man, who was then led out of the pickup truck. He was young, probably in his 20s, and wore a golden skull cap and a shabby tunic.
He was forced to kneel in front of the goal post. He had no blindfold and I could see his pale face, dark hair and thin features. The Taliban soldiers tied his arms behind his back, though he made no attempt to escape.
He glanced at me and the British reporter, standing just a few paces away. The Taliban judge announced that the convicted murderer would be punished according to the principle of an eye-for-an-eye. The brother of the murder victim was handed an AK-47 rifle. There was a short pause and I could hear the murmur in the crowd.
Several shots rang out in loud bursts. The muzzle of the weapon jerked upward and to the right. The condemned man fell to the ground as the bullets hit him. As he was dying, he gasped for air. He turned and looked helplessly toward us. He may have been trying to say something, but all we could hear was a purring sound.
Another burst of gunfire followed, and he was dead.
I then ran toward the exit — confused and horrified.
Taliban Ousted, But Their Executions Continue
Though this happened 14 years ago, it still bothers me when I recall this episode. I never wanted to see another execution.
And when the Taliban were driven out of Kabul in 2001, it seemed that these executions may have come to an end.
But here we are more than a decade later, and they are still taking place. And in this case, just about an hour outside Kabul. The Taliban no longer control the capital, but they can still do largely as they please in some of their traditional strongholds. The authority of the central government is still weak, especially as you get further from Kabul.
The latest execution, which has appeared on YouTube and elsewhere, shows a large crowd in a village watching and cheering as a single gunman shoots the 22-year-old woman from behind as she is sitting on the ground. She was accused of adultery.
In many areas, the Taliban have been able to exploit people’s grievances and an Afghan government justice system that is either corrupt on non-existent.
Capital punishment is legal in Afghanistan. There have been a dozen or so executions carried out by President Hamid Karzai’s government, which took over after the Taliban were ousted.
Women Are Executed Most Often
However, the Taliban’s public executions target mostly women and take place without anything resembling a public trial.
There have been at least a half-dozen public executions by the Taliban in the past three years. Perhaps the most shocking one took place in 2010, when the militants flogged a pregnant woman accused of adultery and then shot her dead. This happened in Badghis Province in northern Afghanistan.
The Afghan government has condemned the latest execution and reportedly launched a manhunt for the Taliban members involved. This came about after mounting outrage from Afghan and international human rights organizations.
But even if those involved are caught, there is no reason to think it will stop the Taliban from acting the same way they have for many years.
Ahmad Shafi, who works in NPR’s Kabul bureau, is currently on assignment in Washington.