As the two women hunkered down in the dark, enveloped in blue burqas, they thought the gun-toting Taliban might free them despite accusations they had run a prostitution ring for a U.S. base.
"I hope they release us tonight so we can go home," one said.
"There must be some reason why they have brought us here," the other responded.
Soon after, the militants shot them dead.
The recent execution of the two women, witnessed in central Ghazni province by an Afghan journalist who contributes to The Associated Press, reflects the Taliban's resurgent presence in Afghanistan and their growing ability to dispense an extreme version of Islamic justice.
The Taliban are still not as powerful as when they ruled Afghanistan before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and regularly staged executions to stadium crowds. But as the insurgency in Afghanistan turns more violent, the Taliban have once again gained control of significant parts of the country where the weak U.S.-backed central government has little authority.
Shadow justice system
One sign of this comeback is the spread of a shadow justice system, with anecdotal reports of the militants' setting up "courts" and meting out harsh punishments.
Sometimes villagers go to the Taliban because their courts move faster and appear less corrupt, experts said. But at other times, in Taliban strongholds, people are afraid to turn anywhere else.
Over the past two years, there have been more reports of local Muslim clerics referring people to the Taliban in part because of their commitment to Shariah, or Islamic law, said John Dempsey, head of the U.S. Institute of Peace office in Afghanistan.
"The Taliban are trying to reassert control not only in terms of fighting and taking control of a town militarily, but also trying to put into place other structures of government that will build legitimacy," Dempsey said.
Many reports about Taliban justice come from the southern provinces, where the insurgency is strongest. There are signs, however, that the militants are spreading their tentacles further, and even outside Afghanistan. Taliban-style punishments have become commonplace in the border regions of neighboring Pakistan, where Islamic extremists now hold considerable sway.
In June, militants executed two people they accused of spying for the U.S. in front of thousands of cheering supporters in Bajur, a Pakistani tribal region. Islamist gunmen regularly shame alleged thieves in the tribal areas by blackening their faces, shaving their heads and parading them through the streets after a summary trial before a self-styled religious court.
The first thing the Taliban do when they come into an area is to set up courts, said Ahmed Rashid, a journalist and author who has written extensively on the militants.
"They insist on the local people going there rather than to the police or the official courts," Rashid said. "That's how they get a grip on the people."
Fear stems crime
In Ghazni province, where the two women were executed, the Taliban set up a pair of courts in Gelan district several months ago, according to Mohebullah Khan, a local farmer. Each court has two judges — clerics — and people go to them knowing the cases will be resolved in days and that they won't have to pay bribes, Khan said. He added that fear of the Taliban has stemmed crime.
"There have been no choppings of hands because there are no thieves," he said.
Mohammad Jawad, a shopkeeper in Logar, a province just south of the capital of Kabul, said the Taliban also have roving judges in some areas.
"One of my friends is a judge and the Taliban sent him letters telling him to stop working. The second letter said, we'll kill you if you work," Jawad said. "Also they issued a fatwa (religious edict) that anyone who works with the government will be killed."
Taliban fighters alleged that the two women executed on July 12 in Ghazni ran a prostitution ring catering to U.S. soldiers and foreign contractors at a U.S. base in Ghazni city. A U.S. military spokesman said he'd never previously heard of such allegations.
Before the executions, two callers contacted AP contributor Rahmatullah Naikzad on his cell phone to say the Taliban were inviting him and other journalists to see them dispense Shariah law. They refused to elaborate.
Witness to execution
The Taliban frequently contact foreign and local journalists, and even at times local government officials. Naikzad leads a five-person news department for a local radio operation.
When he got the invitation, Naikzad thought the Taliban were going to punish some men they had recently detained and accused of burglary and minor crimes. He said he was worried for his own safety, but also felt the need to document how the Taliban were dispensing Islamic justice.
"I'm a journalist, and this is a new thing that is happening in Ghazni," he said. "The Taliban were doing this sort of thing when they were in power but never since they fell."
Naikzad was assured in a series of phone calls of his safety, so he traveled to the outskirts of Ghazni city and met with masked Taliban, who took him to a walled compound with fruit trees. The militants gave him their version of who the women were and why they were "on trial." Naikzad said he feared for his own life if he fled.
The Taliban took the women by car to a village about 30 minutes away, stopping near a graveyard. Naikzad traveled along on his motorbike.
When they got there, Naikzad asked one of the militants, "What if you just let these women go?" The militant replied, "Now is not the time for this kind of talk. It's over now."
As the women realized what was about to happen, they started begging for their lives. At one point, they said, "We did wrong. It was a mistake, we won't do it again."
"Please, brothers, don't do it!" one begged.
"Whatever is happening, it's happening because of you!" the other woman, distraught, suddenly accused her fellow condemned. "For the sake of God, my children!"
"Don't make trouble, don't move," one of the six militants said.
Then at least eight shots rang out, punctuated by cries of "Oh!" and "Allah" and a moan.
Afghan government calls reports propaganda
Afghan intelligence officials detained Naikzad for questioning but eventually released him. President Hamid Karzai, among others, condemned the brazen brutality. But in a recent interview, the Afghan deputy justice minister warned against over-estimating the spread of Taliban justice and called many of the reports propaganda.
"The courts run by the government are active around the country," Qasim Hashimzai said.
However, the official legal system is patchy, and it's clear that executions by the Taliban in the name of so-called justice happen more than they did. The condemned often are accused of being U.S. spies or working with government or foreign forces, said Ahmad Nader Nadery, a human rights advocate in Afghanistan.
He said it was a farce to think the Taliban were running real courts.
"Every time they prosecute," he said, "they execute."