Kabul - A senior British minister has called on the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to block a draft proposal to put stoning on to the country's penal code as punishment for adultery.
The international development secretary, Justine Greening, who has made cutting violence against women a priority for the government's aid operation in Kabul, met the Afghan leader the day after news surfaced of the proposal to revive one of the most gruesome practices of the Taliban era.
The stoning of women in a Kabul stadium, during the half-time break of football matches, became a symbol of the fundamentalist group's harsh rule.
Afghanistan is involved in a painstaking effort to reform its penal code, and as part of that one committee is tasked with handling sharia law. One section of their draft covers stoning, detailing in 28 articles the offences that merit execution, the legal standards of proof necessary, the site of punishment and other details.
Greening told the Afghan president she was deeply concerned about the proposal, a government source with knowledge of the wide-ranging meeting with Karzai told the Guardian.
"He made it clear that he had understood, and sought to reassure her," the source added.
The proposal to legalise stoning is still a long way from reaching legal status. It must first go to another committee tasked with drawing up the final draft, that includes Afghan experts with backgrounds in secular law and also has UK, US and other international members.
Diplomats familiar with the process said there was a little chance they would let the articles stand.
"We do not think the Afghan government has any intention of including these punishments in its penal code," said a US official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.
He pointed out that the Afghan government repeatedly condemned extrajudicial killings of people accused of adultery, including in some cases by stoning.
"We consider this more as a theoretical discussion than any indication of a step to formally institute such a punishment," the official added.
But activists said the articles were a well-planned bid for legal status. "This is an advanced draft. I've seen many draft Afghan laws and this is polished and detailed … they put a lot of time and effort into preparing a section they could plug into the wider penal code," said Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, who first highlighted the proposal.
"This is not an off-the-cuff suggestion, or one person's extreme position. That's why we're taking it so seriously."
Afghan campaigners also warned that regardless of its final fate, the bid was another sign of growing confidence of religious hardliners as foreign troops head home, taking a large slice of western cash and political attention with them.
"I don't see any logic or reason for this action. It is just another attempt to block life for women," said Samira Hamidi, former leader of the influential Afghan Women's Network. "It is extremely dangerous."
"I think it is has to do more with the conservatism of the minister of justice and [his] Taliban view, where he wants to impose Taliban law," Hamidi said of the move.
The justice minister presiding over the penal code reform is an outspoken conservative who last year denounced the country's handful of shelters for battered women as brothels.
There have been some public stonings in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban – all in insurgent areas, which have been condemned by the government. There was public outcry last summer when a video surfaced of a 21-year-old woman being executed just a few dozen miles from the capital.
However, there is little tolerance for any kind of relationship outside of marriage, even in government-controlled areas, and there have been "honour killings" of women caught trying to flee abusive marriages and of couples absconding without their families' consent.
Greening, who is on her second visit to Afghanistan, said the proposal to reintroduce stoning was a reminder of the difficulties for women and girls in the country.
"It shows the huge challenge that we still have here in Afghanistan in steadily improving women's rights," Greening said. In the Afghan capital she unveiled a £18.5m package to boost women's voice in politics, and tackle violence through grassroots projects.
She also hopes to fund a team working with the ministry of interior to improve enforcement of the landmark elimination of violence against women legislation passed several years ago but more often ignored than deployed. Four out of five Afghan women can expect to experience some form of violence in their lifetime, she said.
"This remains the most difficult country in the world to be a woman," Greening said. "There has been a huge improvement even over the last 10 to 12 years, [but] it was from such a low base that even now … there is a hugely long way to go."
"That's why we need to redouble our efforts, not just the UK but working with other donors, and also pressing and working with the Afghanistan government, to make sure that we keep that momentum going on seeing women's rights moving forward."