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Afghan woman killed by mob becomes icon for justice, rights
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Afghan woman killed by mob becomes icon for justice, rights

Power of religious leaders challenged for first time

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Poets, musicians, actors and activists packed an empty shop in a Kabul mall to commemorate the short life and violent death of a woman who has become a symbol for justice and women's rights in a country that historically elevates warlords and battlefield heroes to national icons.

The name of Farkhunda, beaten to death by a frenzied mob apparently in the mistaken belief that she had burned a Quran, has become a rallying cry for Afghans hoping the shocking incident will lead to profound changes in Afghanistan.

Activists say the previously unquestioned power of the religious establishment is being challenged for the first time in Afghanistan's modern history.

Religious leaders and conservative politicians have been forced by the power of public opinion to apologize for trying to justify Farkhunda's killing.

At last week's Kabul vigil, there were performances of works commemorating her death. Outside, documentary filmmaker Diana Saqeb broke down: "I don't believe in the humanity of this country anymore," she said.

Yet the rule of law, said human rights activist Nader Nadery, is in the ascendancy.

"This is a turning point for civil liberties. ... It will be difficult to return to the former status quo when only self-proclaimed religious leaders held the high moral ground at the expense of justice and the constitution," he said. "If this struggle continues, the outcome will be what the country needs, to make rule of law clear and have religion understood in its place within the context of the law."

Farkhunda, a 27-year-old religious scholar who like many Afghans used only one name, was killed on March 19 after an argument with a peddler at Kabul's Shah-Do Shamshira mosque. According to witnesses, she told the man to stop selling amulets to childless women; he shouted to whoever could hear that she had set fire to a Quran.

As police watched and at times participated, Farkhunda was killed by a mob. The Interior Ministry says it has arrested 28 suspects and dismissed 19 policemen. Investigations declared Farkhunda innocent of Quran burning.

Sima Samar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said some good may result from Farkhunda's shocking killing if the perpetrators are punished and a professional police force emerges to command public confidence. "If justice prevails and the law is followed, women will also feel safer," she said.

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