Three of the men convicted of the murder of Farkhunda Malikzada in March were instead given 20-year sentences, and the fourth was sentenced to ten years, appeals court judge Abdul Nasir Murid said.
The ruling was made in a closed-door hearing on Wednesday and first reported by the independent Tolo TV. Tolo said the court had acquitted the peddler at the shrine who allegedly incited the mob by falsely accusing Ms Malikzada of burning a Koran.
Word of the court’s decision outraged her family, which has had no legal representation in the case and had not been directly informed of the change in sentencing.
“The verdict of 20 years means freedom, it means they will be released. We want the earlier decision for the death penalty,” Ms Malikzada’s brother Najibullah, 37, said.
Politicians and activists also criticised the decision, saying the court had bowed to the conservative religious establishment and failed to uphold the rule of law.
“This is against the constitution. The courts should be open to the public, and this closed-door hearing undermines the credibility of the sentences,” said Shukria Barakzai, an MP and women’s rights advocate.
“Farkhunda’s case does not just belong to her family any more – it belongs to all the people of Afghanistan who need assurance that they can have confidence in the law, in the rule of law.”
The mob-killing led to calls for reform of Afghanistan’s judicial system – long plagued by corruption, partisanship and incompetence – and for stronger protection for women from violence.
After the peddler at the Shah-Du Shamshira shrine falsely accused Ms Malikzada of burning a Koran, a mob attacked her as police watched. After punching, kicking and beating her with wooden planks, the crowd threw her from a roof, ran over her with a car and crushed her with a block of concrete. They then set her body alight on the bank of the Kabul River.
A makeshift shrine with a green flag of martyrdom was erected at the spot on the riverbank where her body was dumped. The attack was filmed by many in the mob, and the footage widely distributed on social media.
At the murder trial, the four men were found guilty and sentenced to death. Charges against 18 men were dropped for lack of evidence, and eight others were sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Of 19 policemen charged with dereliction of duty, eight were acquitted due to lack of evidence and 11 were sentenced to one year in prison. Last month, the appeals court upheld a decision to release 37 defendants ahead of their appeals.
Human rights activist Ramin Anwari said the government had given in to conservative clerics, many of whom had said the attack would have been justified if Ms Malikzada had desecrated a Koran.