KABUL - Afghanistan handed the death penalty to seven men on Sunday for raping and robbing a group of women returning from a wedding in a rare case of sexual assault that has shaken the capital and raised concerns over public security at a time of transition.
Police said a large group of men, some dressed in police uniforms, and with assault rifles, stopped a convoy of cars in which the women were traveling along with their families in the district of Paghman, just outside Kabul, last month.
They dragged four women out of the cars in the middle of the night and raped them in the field near the main road. One of them was pregnant. The victims were also beaten and their jewelry and mobile phones stolen.
One of the victims said one of the attackers "put his gun to my head, the other one took all our jewelry" before the other assailants began raping them in a field.
Crimes against women are common but mostly take place inside homes in Afghanistan's conservative society.
But a gang rape by armed men is rare in Kabul and has tapped into a vein of anxiety as foreign troops leave the country and a badly stretched Afghan army and police fight a deadly Taliban insurgency.
Trial televised nationally
Judge Safihullah Mujadidi in a summary trial, televised nationwide, convicted the men of armed robbery and sexual assault.
"Based on criminal law these individuals are sentenced to the severest punishment which is death sentence," Mujadidi said.
The men stood before him in a heavily guarded courtroom. Outside dozens of activists gathered demanding speedy justice to instill public confidence in law and order.
Spectators in the courtroom applauded as Kabul police chief Zahir Zahir said authorities wanted the men hanged in public as "a lesson for others."
"This kind of gang rape is unprecedented in Kabul," Zahir said earlier in his testimony seeking summary punishment for the men.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai also called for the men to be executed.
The men can appeal Sunday's verdict in a higher court. Karzai has to ratify the executions under Afghan law.
"If this act goes unpunished, the women of Afghanistan will continue to be victims," said Uma Saeed, a rights activist. "This is really very significant moment, I would say, even maybe in the history of Karzai's government."
The case drew widespread attention as it highlighted the violence against women that still exists in Afghanistan despite reforms since the worst abuses under Taliban rule more than a decade ago.