The ruling was made in a closed-door hearing on Wednesday and first reported by the independent Tolo TV.
Lawmakers and activists also criticised the decision, saying the court had bowed to the conservative religious establishment and failed to uphold the rule of law.
Appeals Court Judge Abdul Nasir Murid instead handed down 20-year sentences to three of the men convicted for the part they played in the March murder. “We want the earlier decision for the death penalty”, Malikzada’s brother Najibullah, 37, told The Associated Press.
They were originally sentenced in a May trial for leading a crowd of people who beat and kicked the woman, named Farkhunda, and set her body on fire in central Kabul as bystanders chanted “God is great”. “We will not accept this decision”.
“We were hoping that taking Farkhunda’s case the justice system would prove the perception about it being corrupt, political and unfriendly to women in Afghanistan wrong”, she said.
There was an raging reaction from Farkhunda’s family and civil society groups. The custodian of the shrine, Omran, was also acquitted after having initially been sentenced to 16 years in prison for being largely responsible for Malikzada’s false accusation.
The backlash highlighted the angst of a post-Taliban generation in Afghanistan – where almost two-thirds of the population is under 25 – that is often torn between conservatism and modernity as the country rebuilds after decades of war.
Kabul-based activist Ramin Anwari aired his discontent on his Twitter account, and said a massive protest was being planned.
Human Rights Watch said it was “very concerned” over whether due process was followed in the swift trial in which numerous accused did not appear to have lawyers.