Kabul: Hours before five Afghan men were due to be executed Wednesday for gang rape, the UN and human rights groups criticised their trial and called for the new president to stay the death penalties.
The case poses a major test for new president Ashraf Ghani, whose government has been lauded for vowing widespread legal reforms. He faces huge public pressure to not stay the executions, but could damage his credentials with donor nations if the men are hanged.
The brutal attack outside Kabul in August provoked a national outcry with many Afghans demanding the men be hanged, and then-president Hamid Karzai signed their death sentences shortly before leaving office last week.
The armed gang members, wearing police uniforms, stopped a convoy of cars returning to the capital at night from a wedding in Paghman, a scenic spot popular with day-trippers.
The attackers tied up men in the group before raping at least four of the women and stealing valuables from their victims.
But the court process raised major concerns, with the trial lasting only a few hours, allegations of the suspects confessing under torture, and Karzai calling for the men to be hanged even before the case was heard.
In a statement released from Geneva, the UN High Commission for Human Rights "called on President Ghani to refer the cases back to the courts given the very serious due process concerns".
Amnesty said the trial had been rushed, giving lawyers little time to prepare the defence. It was only nine days between the arrests and the handing down of death sentences by the primary court.
The trial was "marred by inconsistencies, un-investigated torture claims and political interference," Amnesty said.
"(Karzai) himself said that he urged the Supreme Court to hand down death sentences."
The group said Ghani, who was sworn in on August 29, "must ensure that the alleged torture by police of the defendants is independently and thoroughly investigated".The accused were found guilty and sentenced at a nationally-televised trial, which attracted noisy rallies outside the courtroom calling for the death penalties.
Applause erupted inside the courtroom when Kabul police chief Zahir Zahir also called for the men to be hanged.
The sentences were quickly confirmed by the appeals court and the Supreme Court.
"President Ghani has called for a review of Afghan`s justice system, but he has an immediate opportunity to stop a grave miscarriage of justice," said Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch.
"The horrendous due process violations in the Paghman trial have only worsened the injustices of this terrible crime."
HRW said the case included a manipulated lineup for identification and a trial with little evidence.
"The hangings are due today. Officials are meeting to decide what will happen," Atta Mohammad Noori, chief of staff at the attorney general`s office, told AFP, giving no further details.
The men are set to be hanged in Pul-e-Charkhi jail, Afghanistan`s largest prison on the outskirts of Kabul.
International donors, including the European Union, have also lodged their objection to the death penalties.
The crime in the early hours of August 23 has become a symbol of the violence that women face in Afghanistan, despite reforms since the Taliban regime fell in 2001.
Women`s rights have been central to the multi-billion-dollar international development effort in Afghanistan, but they still endure routine discrimination, abuse and violence.
Under the Taliban`s harsh version of Sunni Islamic law, women were forced to wear the all-enveloping burqa, banned from jobs, and forbidden even to leave the house without a male chaperone.
The gang-rape unleashed a wave of public anger via protests, the media and the Internet, echoing the response to recent similar crimes in India --including the fatal attack on a student on a bus in New Delhi in 2012.
Ghani`s office was not immediately available to comment.