Afghan Journalist Sentenced to Death

A Victim of Political Power Games?

A court in Mazar-e Sharif has sentenced an Afghan journalist to death for "insulting Islam". Journalists and human rights organisations are outraged. They accuse the authorities in northern Afghanistan of despotism and an abuse of power. Ratbil Shamel reports

Moulvi Shamas-ul-Rehman Moomand, Vorsitzender des Provinzgerichts in Balkh (photo: AP)
If in doubt, decide against press freedom: Moulvi Shamas ul-Rahman Moumand, president of the provincial court in Balkh

​​The 23-year-old journalist Parwez Kambakhsh, who has been in prison for about three months now, is accused of having distributed texts that supposedly attack every one of Islam's principles. The Council of Islamic Scholars is extremely satisfied with the sentence that was passed on 22 January, especially as it has been calling for the maximum sentence right from the word go.

Kambakhsh emphatically refutes all the charges brought against him. Human rights activists and journalists are of the opinion that the young journalist is the victim of the power games being played out in Afghanistan's conservative circles.

As recently as last week, the governor of the province of Balkh, Atta Muhammad Nur, explained to journalists in his office in the city of Mazar-e Sharif that Parwez Kambakhsh would be given a fair trial, would be allowed to have a lawyer and  as always in a state under the rule of law such as Afghanistan  would be treated fairly. The governor even indirectly indicated that the young man might be released soon after.

Some reporters began speaking of a U-turn in the Kambakhsh case. Their optimism didn't last very long. Less than 48 hours later, the deputy public prosecutor in Mazar-e Sharif announced that a sentence had been passed on the young journalist.

No legal representative

It soon became apparent that Kambakhsh had neither been appointed a legal representative, nor been given a public hearing. Conservatives in northern Afghanistan spoke of a just sentence and a victory for Islam. Journalists' associations, on the other hand, said that they intended to fight the sentence right up to the country's highest court.

Rahimullah Samandar, chairman of the Afghan Journalists' Association, called it a scandal and an act of despotism: "No journalist may be sentenced in this way according to the laws of this country," he said. "The case must be referred to the Commission tasked with investigating complaints against journalists. The public prosecutor may only get involved if the commission establishes that an offence has been committed. None of this happened in this case."

Samandar is angry and feels helpless. For weeks he has been protesting against the practices of the authorities in Mazar-e Sharif. About three months ago, a student of journalism and reporter for the local newspaper "Jahan-e noh" (New World) was arrested without a warrant by members of the secret service.

Kambakhsh is accused of having distributed an essay that is deemed insulting to Islam among young people at the university. He admits downloading an article from the Internet entitled "Misogynous verses in the Koran" and giving the article, which was written by one Arash Bekhoda and was critical of Islam, to some of his friends.

However, he emphatically rejects the charge of having done so with the expressed intention of damaging Islam. The article, which did indeed come from an anti-Islam website, quotes verses from the Koran and simplistically interprets them as being misogynous.

Suppressing freedom of opinion

The Council of Islamic Scholars in Mazar-e Sharif is of the opinion that the Afghan state cannot tolerate such attacks. Samandar explained that he shares the opinion of the scholars on this point, but at the same time insinuated that they are also following a political agenda:

Parwez Kambakhsch (photo: AP)
Facing the executioner: Parwez Kambakhsh has been sentenced to death in Afghanistan

​​"They want to rob us of the right not only to express our opinions freely, but also to read texts and discuss them with our friends. That's going too far! That is oppression, pure and simple."

Samandar and his friends feel that the young journalist is not the only one being pilloried here, so too are the democratic achievements of the past six years. Press freedom in Afghanistan is a thorn in the flesh of many of those who move in the country's powerful conservative circles, especially the former warlords.

Too many uncomfortable questions are being asked for their liking. They don't want to talk about the roles they played in the years of the civil war, during which many villages and towns were razed to the ground and tens of thousands of people were killed. They prefer to see themselves as "Mujahideen", holy warriors, and the true defenders of Islam and the fatherland. They accuse the media of disregarding the principles of Islam and Afghan traditions.

"The cudgel of Islam"

Brandishing the "cudgel of Islam", as Samandar puts it, these people take a swipe at press representatives on a regular basis. To date, several journalists who dared to voice criticism of Islam have been accused of blasphemy. According to the fundamentalists' interpretation of Islam, the only suitable punishment for this crime is death. As far as they are concerned, it is only right that the maximum sentence was handed down on Parwez Kambakhsh.

However, the reasons given by the court are being questioned by a few brave, moderate Islamic scholars such as Ayatollah Mohseni: "According to the Sharia, if someone intentionally insults the Prophet of Islam, that person should be put to death. This does not, however, apply to someone who did nothing more than read an essay written by someone else and pass that text on to others."

At present, this is little help to the young journalist. According to Samandar, he is in dire need of political assistance. The Afghan president is the only one with the power to pardon someone who has been sentenced to death. To date, however, Kabul has remained silent on the matter.

Ratbil Shamel

© Deutsche Welle / 2008

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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