Shahla Atta's Family Says The Afghan Lawmaker Was Murdered, Though The Investigation is Ongoing

The family of Shahla Atta, an Afghan lawmaker whose body was found in Kabul last Friday, claim that the former presidential hopeful was murdered. Family members called a press conference Wednesday, where they announced they believed they had sufficient evidence to prove 48-year old Atta did not die of natural causes, according to the Afghan news agency Khaama Press. Police have not yet announced the cause of death, and an investigation is ongoing.

Atta, who ran unsuccessfully for president in Afghanistan’s 2009 election, had served as an independent legislator since 2005. She also ran the Atta Foundation—an organization dedicated to providing support for women whose husbands are physically disabled or dead. Although no cause of her death has officially been announced, rumors immediately erupted tying her death to excess alcohol consumption. Family members vigorously denounce such reports, claiming Atta was targeted for being an outspoken female politician.

“Powerful women since [sic] time have been subjugated as criminals on no grounds in a patriarchal society,” the family wrote in a press statement announcing the Wednesday conference in Kabul, “but we stand in solidarity with them, as we stand for Shahla Ata.” The family claim they possess pictures of the crime scene that attest to the nefarious nature of Atta’s death. They write:

We call upon the government of Afghanistan including the president, and the police and the US embassy to help us bring her the justice she rightly deserves like any other civilian under a sovereign State.

Atta was reportedly a U.S. citizen, having spent many years living in the United States. She never renounced her citizenship, and her five children allegedly still live in the States. The police have not yet made any arrests, and Atta’s family have not put forth an exact motive for murder beyond broadly referencing her gender and political participation. The claims come at a time when, according to The Guardian, electoral quotas have ensured that global female political participation has increased exponentially. The percentage of female lawmakers has nearly doubled over the past twenty years, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

But in Afghanistan, political assassinations are not uncommon and women are certainly not exempt. Last June, then-presidential election front-runner and current Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah narrowly escaped death, when two bombs exploded outside a hotel where he had just staged a political rally. Reuters reported six dead in the Kabul blast. In 2012, Najia Siddiqi — acting head of the department of women’s affairs in Laghman province — was shot and killed by two assailants while traveling in a rickshaw.

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According to Al-Jazeera, the attack came only five months after Hanifa Safi, Siddiqi's predecessor, was killed. Safi was known for leaving the house with her head uncovered, according to BBC, and was killed after a bomb attached to her vehicle exploded. In 2006, Safia Ama Jan — also a Women’s Affairs provincial director — was killed in a manner similar to Siddiqi. The gunmen were reportedly members of the Taliban. The list of assassinated Afghans goes relentlessly on.

Rule of law is notoriously weak in Afghanistan. The Afghan National Police are charged with what a recent New York Times headline called “The Hardest (and Most Important) Job in Afghanistan.” The accompanying story recounts an individual police officer’s attempts to battle off encroaching anarchy. The police force, the Times points out, are charged with both defeating the Taliban and gaining the loyalty and trust of the citizenry. A fundamental dearth of security turns such quotidian aspirations into Mission Impossible.

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In the force, corruption is rampant and collaboration with the Taliban not uncommon. At the start of this month, President Ashraf Ghani dismissed 27 senior police officers, claiming many Afghan police personnel had links to the country’s warlords. The move came as part of a larger anti-corruption drive spearheaded by the new president, according to the BBC. One Kabul-based reporter said at the time that many of the sacked officers had in fact been awarded new positions.

The United Nations Development Fund currently pays the wages of the Afghan police force, a situation that looks set to end within six months. The fund has been plagued by suspicions of fraud and mismanagement, according to The Wall Street Journal, and the upcoming deadline has sparked fears over the future operational efficiency of the police force. Meanwhile, their current success rate leaves much to be desired. Last September, the Times reported that seven Afghan journalists had been killed so far that year; most of the killings remained unsolved, and one of them had been committed by the police.

Shahla Atta’s family may have to exercise patience: it could be a while before their questions are answered, their demands fulfilled, or their claims rebutted.

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