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EU Blocks Release of Afghan Documentary

Habiba, who has completed three years of a 10-year prison sentence for murder, holds her daughter Nazanin who was born in jail three years ago but still cannot walk, as they rest in their bunk bed inside Pul-e Charkhi prison in Kabul, Afghanistan. (File P

The European Union has sparked controversy by deciding not to release a documentary on women prisoners in Afghanistan. Exploring the phenomenon of "moral crimes," the film underscores the harsh realities facing Afghan women, despite legislation to protect their rights.

Commissioned by the European Union, the documentary tells the harrowing stories of two women locked in Afghanistan's jails for so-called "moral crimes." According to reports, one is a rape victim. Another ran away from a husband who beat her.

But the EU has not released the documentary. The Associated Press news agency cites an email sent by an EU official raising concerns about the women's safety, but also about Europe's relations with Afghan justice institutions.

Michael Mann, chief spokesman for European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, rejects suggestions that politics played a role. The only worry, he says, is that the women portrayed in the documentary are protected.

"Any suggestion that I've read where somehow [we're] trying to prevent the plight of women reaching the public domain is absolute nonsense, that's the whole idea of us commissioning the film in the first place, we want to draw attention to the plight of these women," said Mann.

Several hundred women are currently jailed for moral crimes, according to Human Rights Watch's Heather Barr, who is interviewing a number of them for an upcoming report. The rights group won't comment on the controversy. But Barr says the stories in the EU documentary are all too common.

"What you see when you talk with women who are in prison for what are called moral crimes here is that some of them have been accused of running away from home, which as I said is not even a crime under Afghan law, and some of them have been accused of zina, which is an act of sex between two people who aren't married to each other," said Barr.

Despite recent legislation making violence and rape against women illegal, Barr says the number of women imprisoned for moral crimes has actually gone up.

Equally worrying is what happens to them when they're set free.

"Quite a few of them feel like they're going to be forced back into the abusive situation that they escaped from and some have said very clearly that they expect their families are likely to kill them, because they've brought shame on their families by ending up in prison."

Afghanistan will be in the international spotlight early next month, when Germany hosts a conference on the country's future. Barr says Afghan women's rights activists have been pushing for their own speaking slot at the meeting, so far, with no success.

"So I think we're going to see a conference that really sidelines women," said Barr. "And a conference where the fact that there are still hundreds of women in prison, basically for being victims of domestic violence, is really not going to be an issue which anyone is interested in discussing."

But Mann of the European Union, says the EU, for one, is committed to pushing for judicial reform in Afghanistan and for greater women's rights.

"We're very big supporters of human rights in the European Union and we believe these women should have equal human rights as everyone in society," said Mann. "And that's the message we want to get across."

Mann says the EU is currently looking for ways to release the documentary, while protecting the women prisoners who are featured in it.