Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, North America, Press Freedom

AFGHANISTAN: Journalist Serving 20 Years for “Blasphemy”

Zainab Mineeia

WASHINGTON, Oct 21 2008 (IPS) - International human rights groups have called on Afghan authorities and President Hamid Karzai to free 24-year-old Afghani journalist Perwiz Kambakhsh, who has been sentenced to 20 years of prison after being convicted of blasphemy.

“There are no legal grounds for either his conviction or this sentence,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific director. “While it can only be a positive step that he is no longer on death row, he should be freed immediately.”

Kambakhsh is a journalism student at Balkh University and a reporter for the newspaper Jahan-e-Naw (“New World”). He was arrested on Oct. 27, 2007, and accused of “blasphemy and distribution of texts defamatory of Islam”.

Afghan authorities claimed that Kambakhsh downloaded material from the internet that spoke to women’s roles in Muslim societies and was distributing them on his college campus. Kambakhsh strongly denies the charges, stating that he made such confessions due to severe torture.

On Jan. 20, Kambakhsh was condemned to death – behind closed doors and without a defence lawyer – by a court in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The sentence was later commuted by an Afghan appeals court. However, Kambakhsh would still have to spend 20 years in prison for a crime which, under article 347 of the country’s Penal Code, carries a maximum sentence of five years of imprisonment.

Mohammad Afzal Nooristani, Kambakhsh’s attorney, told the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that one of the witnesses called by the prosecution, a classmate of Kambakhsh’s identified by CPJ only as Hamid, told the court that National Directorate of Security officials had visited him a few days after Kambakhsh’s initial arrest and threatened to take his family into custody if he did not make a statement about Kambakhsh’s blasphemy.

“He was their prime witness; no other was eligible to give testimony,” Nooristani said, according to CPJ.

Yaqub Ibrahimi, Kambakhsh’s brother, told CPJ Tuesday that he was only able to talk to Kambakhsh for a few seconds after the sentencing.

“He was really shocked. He expected his release today but this was a very strong decision against him,” Ibrahimi said.

“Afghan justice has again failed to protect Afghan law and guarantee free expression,” Reporters Without Borders, a journalist advocacy group, said in a statement. “By sentencing this young journalist to imprisonment, the appeal court has eliminated the possibility of his being executed, but it has also exposed the degree to which some Afghan judges are susceptible to pressure from fundamentalists.”

“Kambakhsh was able this time to be represented by a lawyer,” continued the Reporters Without Borders statement, “but the appeal proceedings were marred by ideological distortion, a glaring lack of evidence and incomprehensible delays that ended up undermining the court’s serenity.”

Afghanistan’s government and warlords may not be notorious for executing journalists, but they do have a reputation for harassing, detaining, abusing and threatening them, advocacy groups say. The country is generally known as a harsh place for journalists, where they are in danger from harassment by U.S. forces, Afghan authorities, and the resurgent Taliban-led insurgency.

In another incident, Afghani journalist Jawed Ahmad, aged 22, was released from Bagram Air Base north of Kabul on September 21 following a year-long captivity in U.S. custody. He was detained as what the U.S. Department of Defense told CPJ was an “Unlawful Enemy Combatant.”

Ahmad was never charged with a crime and military officials have never explained the basis for his prolonged detention. He was working under contract as a field producer with the Canadian broadcaster CTV when he was picked up by Canadian troops at the International Security and Assistance Force’s (ISAF – the U.S. – and NATO-led international coalition that invaded Afghanistan in 2001) Kandahar airbase and soon moved to the U.S. facility at Bagram.

Ahmad said he does not know why he was freed and is unclear about why he was detained in the first place.

According to a statement from Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia Programme coordinator, Ahmad had suffered physical abuse during his detention, where he said he was frequently beaten, two of his ribs were broken, and he was deprived of sleep.

Karzai’s government hasn’t shown much openness to freedom of expression, according to the Nai Centre for Open Media, an Afghan NGO supported by foreign funding. The government is responsible for at least 23 of 45 instances of intimidation, violence, or arrest of journalists between May 2007 and May 2008. That is a 130 percent increase over the same period from the year before, the Nai Centre says, according to CPJ.

Kambakhsh described the court’s decision as an “injustice.” His lawyer said he would immediately appeal to the Supreme Court.

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