Hundreds marched Monday in the Afghan capital, demanding justice for a woman beaten to death last week by a Kabul mob over false allegations she had burned a Quran — a vicious killing that shocked many Afghans and renewed calls for authorities to ensure women's rights to equality and protection from violence.
The killing has also drawn condemnation from Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani, now in Washington on his first state visit to the United States since taking office in September, who denounced it as a "heinous attack" and ordered an investigation.
On Thursday, a mob of men beat a 27-year-old religious scholar named Farkhunda to death, threw her body off a roof, ran over it with a car, set it on fire and at the end, threw it into the Kabul River near one of the Afghan capital's most renowned mosques, the Shah Doshamshera.
The attack was captured by cellphone cameras and has been widely distributed on social media.
Farkhunda, who like many Afghans had just one name, was buried amid a huge public outcry on Sunday, her coffin carried by women's activists who defied the tradition of men-only pallbearers and funerals.
18 arrested, 13 police officers suspended
Protesters who gathered near the Shah Doshamshera mosque on Monday demanded the government prosecute all those responsible for the death.
Kabul's police chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi said 18 people had been arrested and all had confessed to their role in Farkhunda's death.
"We have enough evidence" against the suspects, he announced at a press conference as the 18 were brought out before the media. He said 13 policemen based in the area of the mosque had been suspended amid allegations they stood by and did nothing to stop the attack, and another four were under investigation.
One of the policemen who witnessed the attack, Sayed Habid Shah, said they were overwhelmed by the size of the crowd, which grew throughout the assault.
It all started when Farkhunda and a fortune teller at a small shrine next to the mosque began arguing and the fortune teller accused her of burning the Qur'an, Shah said.
"She said, 'I am a Muslim and Muslims do not burn the Qur'an,"' Shah, who has not been suspended, told The Associated Press. "As more people gathered, the police were trying to push them away, but it got out of control."
"The people pulled her into a corner of the yard and beat her with sticks, and one man took a large stone and dropped it on her. That was the end," Shah said.
Farkhunda's body was then dragged 300 metres along the road in front of the mosque and thrown into the river, he added.
Social activists on Monday planted a pine tree on the riverbank spot where Farkhunda's body was set alight. The demonstrators, many of them members of the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, blocked the road outside the mosque and marched along the riverside route, starting from where the attack began.
Daily protests planned
Many women in the crowd wore masks of Farkhunda's battered and bloodied face, which has appeared widely on social media. They carried a banner accusing the government of breaking promises to end corruption and bring rule of law to Afghanistan.
"We demand that the government ensure that all those involved are arrested and that they face an open trial so that justice is implemented and they become an example for others," said Palwasha, who described herself as a social activist.
Activist and film director Sahraa Karimi said she was disappointed that unlike Ghani, the president's wife, Rula, has not yet spoken publicly about the killing. "This is typical of the women in positions of influence in Afghanistan," Karimi said. "How can they be our representatives?"
Ghani put women's rights and equality at the heart of his presidential campaign last year and has given his wife, Rula, a high public profile. Though she has yet to speak publicly about the killing, Rula did refer to it during a private function marking the Persian New Year.
Activists have promised daily protests throughout the week to maintain pressure on the authorities to act to curb violence against women.
"That people are comfortable being filmed while committing a murder like this in daylight is a symptom of the culture of impunity," said activist Ramin Anwari, citing cellphone footage of the attack on Farkhunda.
Also on Monday, five teenage boys were killed and another six injured when explosives attached to a bicycle were detonated during a football match in southern Ghazni province, according to the deputy governor Mohammad Ali Ahmadi.