Amid Rising Poverty, Hunger, Taliban Impose Sharia Law Punishments

SRINAGAR: Afghanistan’s supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada has ordered judges to fully implement aspects of the Islamic Sharia law against thieves amid the region’s 70 per cent of households unable to meet basic food and non-food needs resulting in a rise in crimes.

Kandahar, Afghanistan: Shigafa, 7, receives food items from her teacher on 25 January 2022. The aim is to increase enrolment and retention of students in schools and contribute to lowering gender disparity within schools in Kandahar province. Photo: WFP/Sadeq Naseri

The prescribed punishments for thieves under the Sharia guidelines include executions, stoning, floggings, and amputation of limbs for thieves.

In a series of tweets, the Taliban’s chief spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid gave details about the meeting between the judges and Haibatullah Akhundzada, who is yet to make a public appearance since the Taliban returned to power in August last year.

The supreme leader has ordered the judges to investigate the cases of thieves, kidnappers, and seditionists in a detailed manner.

“Those cases in which all the Shariah conditions of Hadad and Qisas have been fulfilled; you are obliged to implement Hadad and Qisas. Because this is the ruling of Sharia and my command, which is obligatory,” a tweet quoting Akhundzada read.

Hudud refers to crimes for which specific punishments are required by Islamic law, which include adultery, theft, kidnapping, apostasy, and rebellion. Qisas on the other hand means “retaliation in kind” or, more literally, “an eye for an eye.” While covering crimes like murder and intentional harm, Qisas also permits the families of victims to accept restitution instead of punishment.

Meanwhile, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has termed the spiralling hunger in Afghanistan as one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises threatening millions of people in the region.

Intense summer heat and a weak spring rainy season have effectively spelt doom for a meaningful harvest in the country this year.

Amidst mounting poverty, 70 per cent of households are unable to meet basic food and non-food needs, with particularly devastating effects for homes headed by widows, the elderly, people with disabilities, and children, an IFRC report stated.

“An estimated three million children are at risk of malnutrition and susceptible to diseases such as acute watery diarrhoea and measles due to weakened immunity,” the report read further.

Thousands of people have resorted to begging on the streets, with prices of essential items soaring in the face of declining remittances, a crumbling economy, and rising poverty.

Dr Mohammad Nabi Burhan, Secretary General of the Afghan Red Crescent, said: “This is one of the worst humanitarian crises I have seen in Afghanistan, in more than 30 years as a humanitarian aid worker. It is horrifying to see the extent of hunger and the resurgence of poverty that we have fought so hard to eradicate.”

“It is particularly worrying for Afghans in rural and remote areas, where some of the country’s poorest communities face widespread destitution and very high levels of malnutrition after their crops failed or livestock perished, Dr Burhan said in a recent IFRC conference in Malaysia.

“A lack of food should not be a cause of death in Afghanistan. There needs to be a concerted international effort to continue critical humanitarian assistance across the country so that lives can be saved.”

Pressures for the conservative leadership of the war-torn country are rising as natives who had migrated to neighbouring countries are being sent home. In 2022, reports appearing in the media said more than 240,000 refugees have been deported from Iran and Turkey.

Kabul officials manning Afghanistan’s southwestern province of Nimroz have told reporters that nearly 190,000 Afghans have been deported by Tehran in the last six months alone.

Turkish interior ministry’s migration management office has claimed that at least 92,583 undocumented Afghans have entered the country till October 2022. Of them, 57,174 were sent back to Taliban-run Afghanistan on both chartered and scheduled flights.

Afghanistan has more than half a million population internally displaced. It has almost 14 lakh of its nationals living as refugees in Pakistan and nearly eight lakh in Iran, UN aid agency details suggest.

A Famine In Winter

On September 26, 2022, the UN organisation, World Food Programme said Afghanistan’s economy has withered and development aid and assets stand largely frozen as a result of which the Tablian-ruled country is at the “most serious risk of famine in 20 years”. WPG works in managing hunger in Afghanistan.

“WFP urgently needs US$1.1 billion to continue delivering monthly food and nutritional assistance for the next six months to 18 million acutely food-insecure Afghans — six million of whom are teetering on the brink of famine. The sum includes US$172 million to pre-position 150,000 mt of food for winter,” the statement said.

In the more than year-long Taliban rule, the WFP said the decrease in conflict has increased humanitarian workers’ abilities to reach remote, vulnerable communities but the fragile economy has crumbled, jobs have disappeared, livelihoods have vanished, and climate shocks are destroying homes and livelihoods. Earthquakes and massive floods have added to the crisis and historically high deluge in Pakistan has seriously impacted its key trading partner.

“Most crucial will be the coming winter months when hunger bites hardest. If the urgently required funding comes through, WFP plans to pre-position food in rugged and remote areas in the weeks before snow and ice close roads and make many communities inaccessible. This will help avoid catastrophic levels of food insecurity and even starvation,” the WFP said.

Crippling Banking Crisis

Early this year, Human Rights Watch said that Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis cannot be effectively addressed unless the United States and other governments ease restrictions on the country’s banking sector to facilitate legitimate economic activity and humanitarian aid.

The US and other governments and the World Bank Group, according to the HRW statement of August 2, revoked the credentials of the Central Bank of Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover on August 15, 2021.

“Afghanistan’s intensifying hunger and health crisis is urgent and at its root is a banking crisis,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Regardless of the Taliban’s status or credibility with outside governments, international economic restrictions are still driving the country’s catastrophe and hurting the Afghan people.”

Despite actions by the US and others to license banking transactions with Afghan entities, Afghanistan’s central bank remains unable to access its foreign currency reserves or process or receive most international transactions. As a result, the country continues to suffer from a major liquidity crisis and a lack of banknotes. Businesses, humanitarian groups, and private banks continue to report extensive restrictions on their operational capacities. At the same time, because outside donors have severely cut funding to support Afghanistan’s health, education, and other essential sectors, millions of Afghans have lost their incomes.

Acute malnutrition is entrenched across Afghanistan, even though food and basic supplies are available in markets throughout the country. An Afghan humanitarian official told Human Rights Watch in mid-July, “People have nothing to eat. You may not imagine it, but children are starving…. The situation is dire, especially if you go to the villages.”

He said he knew of one family who had lost two children, ages 5 and 2, to starvation in the last two months: “This is unbelievable in 2022.” He said that he knew of no shortages in food supplies and that the causes of the crisis were economic: “A functioning banking system is an immediate and crucial need to address the humanitarian crisis.”

Almost 20 million people – half the population – are suffering either level-3 “crisis” or level-4 “emergency” levels of food insecurity under the assessment system of the World Food Programme (WFP). Over one million children under 5 – especially at risk of dying when deprived of food – are suffering from prolonged acute malnutrition, meaning that even if they survive, they face significant health problems, including stunting. Recently, the WFP reported that tens of thousands of people in one province, Ghor, had slipped into “catastrophic” level-5 acute malnutrition, a precursor to famine.

Overall, more than 90 per cent of Afghans have been suffering from some form of food insecurity since last August, skipping meals or whole days of eating and engaging in extreme coping mechanisms to pay for food, including sending children to work. Afghanistan’s economic collapse was caused in part by a collapse in most families’ incomes following the Taliban takeover and foreign donors’ decisions to suspend outside budgetary support for numerous government, humanitarian, and development sectors, including education and health.

US and World Bank decisions to restrict Afghanistan’s banking sector have significantly amplified the crisis by hampering most legitimate economic activities, including humanitarian efforts. The Central Bank of Afghanistan is unable to carry out basic central banking functions, including holding currency auctions, importing banknotes, and processing or settling legitimate commercial and humanitarian transactions. Because of these incapacities, even basic economic activities remain severely curtailed.

“Importers are struggling to pay for goods, humanitarian groups are facing problems with basic operations, and the Afghan diaspora can’t send enough money to their relatives and friends,” Sifton said. “Millions of hungry Afghans are experiencing the abysmal reality of seeing food at the market but being unable to purchase it.”

Making matters worse, Afghanistan’s economic crisis is occurring as inflation and cost increases have been accelerating, with an over 50 per cent increase for basic household items since July 2021. According to World Bank data, prices for staples such as rice and wheat have almost doubled in the last two months. At the same time, prices for agricultural inputs like fertilizer and fuel have doubled, and they are in short supply, meaning Afghanistan’s own domestic food production is set to decrease in 2022.

The crisis’ impact on women and girls is especially severe. An Afghan woman working for a civil society group said that restrictions on women’s basic rights to freedom of movement and work have made it difficult “even for educated women who used to be financially independent,” and fall particularly hard on widows. “Pregnant women are really affected by the situation, especially because of the limited access to health care. I know dozens of widowed women who send me messages every day asking for help.”

Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation would be even worse had the United Nations and other aid providers not substantially increased their operations in 2022, Human Rights Watch said. As the World Food Programme stated in a food security assessment for June through November 2022, “The severity of the situation is only partially mitigated by the unprecedented surge of humanitarian assistance that covers 38 per cent of the total population of Afghanistan in the current period. In the absence of such assistance, the magnitude and severity of needs would be dramatically higher.”

The Taliban leadership should recognize that their poor human rights record is imperilling hopes to reach any agreements to resolve the banking crisis, Human Rights Watch said. Since last August, the authorities have imposed strict restrictions on women and girls that violate their rights to education, work, health care, and freedom of movement and speech. Taliban authorities have also suppressed media and arbitrarily detained and at times executed perceived critics or opponents.

Taliban authorities are reportedly prepared to accept independent monitoring of the central bank by outside auditors, a key demand of the US government and World Bank. But they continue to reject key demands from governments to remove sanctioned officials from the central bank’s leadership and to reverse their position denying secondary education to girls and women.

“The Taliban seem more interested in restricting the human rights of Afghan women and girls than in preventing starvation,” Sifton said. “If their leadership is seeking legitimacy, they need to rethink their priorities.”

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