KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban on Sunday ordered their first public executions by stoning since their fall from power nine years ago, killing a young couple who had eloped, according to Afghan officials and a witness.
The punishment was carried out by hundreds of the victims' neighbors in a village in northern Kunduz province, according to Nadir Khan, 40, a local farmer and Taliban sympathizer, who was interviewed by telephone. Even family members were involved, both in the stoning and in tricking the couple into returning after they had fled.
Khan said that as a Taliban mullah prepared to read the judgment of a religious court, the lovers, a 25-year-old man named Khayyam and a 19-year-old woman named Siddiqa, defiantly confessed in public to their relationship. "They said, 'We love each other no matter what happens,' " Khan said.
The executions were the latest in a series of cases where the Taliban have imposed their harsh version of Shariah law for social crimes, reminiscent of their behavior during their decade ruling the country. In recent years, Taliban officials have sought to play down their bloody punishments of the past as they concentrated on building popular support.
"We see it as a sign of a new confidence on the part of the Taliban in the application of their rules, like they did in the '90s," said Nader Nadery, a senior commissioner on the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "We do see it as a trend. They're showing more strength in recent months, not just in attacks but including their own way of implementing laws, arbitrary and extrajudicial killings."
The stoning deaths, along with similarly brazen attacks in northern Afghanistan, were also a sign of growing Taliban strength in parts of the country where, until recently, they had been weak or absent. In their home regions in southern Afghanistan, Nadery said, the Taliban have already been cracking down. "We've seen a big increase in intimidation of women and more strict rules on women," he said.
Perhaps most worrisome were signs of support for the action from mainstream religious authorities in Afghanistan. The head of the Ulema Council in Kunduz province, Mawlawi Abdul Yaqub, interviewed by telephone, said Monday that stoning to death was the appropriate punishment for an illegal sexual relationship, although he declined to give his view on this particular case. An Ulema Council is a body of Islamic clerics with religious authority in a region.
Less than a week earlier, the national Ulema Council gathered 350 religious scholars in a meeting with government religious officials, who on Aug. 10 issued a joint statement calling for more punishment under Shariah law, apparently referring to stonings, amputations and lashings.
Failure to carry out such "Islamic provisions," it said, was hindering the peace process and encouraging crime.
The controversy could have implications for Afghan officials' efforts to reconcile with Taliban leaders and draw them into power-sharing talks.
Afghan officials, supported by Western countries, have insisted that Taliban leaders accept the Afghan Constitution, which guarantees women's rights, and not expect a return to Shariah law.
Afghan officials in the area confirmed the stoning deaths Monday. Mahbubullah Sayedi, a spokesman for the Kunduz governor's office, condemned the executions and said Afghan law has ample provision for prosecuting someone accused of adultery or other social crimes.
"We have courts here, and we can solve such cases through our judicial organizations," he said. "This act is against human rights and against our national Constitution."
They 'did a bad thing'
Khan estimated that about 200 villagers participated in the executions, including Khayyam's father and brother, and Siddiqa's brother, as well as other relatives, with a larger crowd of onlookers who did not take part.
"People were very happy seeing this," Khan maintained, saying the crowd was festive and cheered during the stoning. The couple, he said, "did a bad thing."
A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, praised the action.
"According to Shariah law, if someone commits a crime like that, we have our courts, and we deal with such crimes based on Islamic law," he said by cell phone.