Taliban Gunmen Murder Leading Afghan Women's Rights Activist

Taliban gunmen murdered one of Afghanistan’s leading female rights activists yesterday, as she stood outside her home. In the latest blow against women’s rights, two men on a motorbike shot Sitara Achakzai in the southern city of Kandahar.

Officials said the attack happened in broad daylight. The Taliban have claimed responsibility. Friends said Mrs Achakzai was returning from a provincial council meeting; her assassins were lying in wait nearby.

“This cold-blooded assassination puts in question the direction that Afghanistan is heading,” warned Wenny Kusuma, the director of the United Nations Development fund for Women in Afghanistan. “There is no respect for the rule of law."

Earlier this year Mrs. Achakzai was instrumental in organizing a nationwide sit-in of more than 11,000 women, in seven provinces. The women ‘prayed for peace’ to mark International Women’s Day.

Her death has sent shockwaves through Afghanistan’s human rights community. It comes after Mrs. Achakzai suffered shrapnel wounds to her face in a Taliban suicide attack on Kandahar’s provincial council building that left 13 dead a fortnight ago.

Yesterday was the first time she had returned there since. A friend said she went to say farewell: frightened for her safety she was to leave Afghanistan on May 1.

“She had a ticket to leave,” said a close friend and colleague in Kandahar, who asked not to be named. “She was going to take a few months to see what happened, to see whether things get better or worse.”

Mrs. Achakzai was living in Germany until 2004, but decided to come back and serve Afghanistan with her husband, who taught chemistry in Kandahar University, the friend said.

President Hamid Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali is the head of the council. The Taliban have offered 200,000 Pakistani rupees, around £1,700, to anyone who murders a councillor.

The murder comes just days after President Hamid Karzai was forced to order a review of new legislation which the UN said legalized rape. Fury over the law, which President Barack Obama called “abhorrent,” highlighted the desperate state of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

In September last year, Afghanistan’s most prominent female police officer, Lt-Col Malalai Kakar, was shot in a similar attack in Kandahar. The Taliban also claimed responsibility.

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