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20 YEARS FOR "BLASPHEMOUS" STUDENT JOURNALIST

Afghanistan's Supreme Court has upheld a 20-year sentence for Parwez Kambakhsh, a student and part-time journalist who was charged with blasphemy after he emailed friends an article that critically analysed the portrayal of women in the Quran, report Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The rights organisations are calling on President Hamid Karzai to pardon Kambakhsh and secure his safe release. "Kambakhsh has committed no crime. Now it is up to President Karzai to act on principle and free him," says Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch's Asia director.

Lawyer Azfal Nooristani learned earlier this month that the Afghan Supreme court secretly upheld Kambakhsh's sentence on 11 February without giving him the opportunity to defend his client. "I went to the supreme court to hand in the defence arguments. There, I was told that the court confirmed the 20-year sentence a month ago and that the case has been already passed back to the prosecutor," Nooristani told RSF. "How can they reach such a decision without even waiting to hear what the defence has to say?" The Supreme Court was Kambakhsh's last hope of receiving a fair hearing in a case that has flouted both international and Afghan law and has exposed the lack of independence of the Afghan judiciary.

Kambaksh's brother, Yaqub Ibrahimi, has told Human Rights Watch he believes the trumped-up charges and sentence are in retaliation to stories Ibrahimi wrote as a reporter for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Shortly before the arrest of his brother, Ibrahimi published several articles exposing human rights abuses by local warlords and militias in Afghanistan. The National Directorate of Security searched Ibrahimi's home several times and threatened him on many occasions before arresting Kambakhsh, Human Rights Watch previously reported. Since Kambaksh's arrest in October 2007, the combination of the illegal intervention of warlords and the radical religious conservatism of Afghanistan's judges have stymied any chance of justice in Kambaksh's case, according to Human Rights Watch.

Kambakhsh, who is in his early 20s, was detained in Balkh province and accused of writing and distributing the article in question; however, it has been established that the article came from an Iranian website and Kambakhsh only downloaded it. The Primary Court in Balkh sentenced Kambakhsh to death early last year after a sham trial that lasted only minutes. Evidence against Kambakhsh came from fellow students and teachers who claimed the journalist asked "difficult questions" in class.

In October last year, the Court of Appeal upheld Kambaksh's conviction and reduced his sentence to 20 years in prison. During the second trial, the prosecution's main witness and the only person to directly link Kambakhsh to the article retracted his statement, saying he was forced to testify by security forces.

Rights groups are gravely concerned Kambaksh, who says he is being told he will be transferred, will be sent to Mazar-i-Sharif or to Pul-i-Charki prisons. Both jails house jihadist inmates who pose a threat to Kambakhsh's life. "He thinks he will be killed," said Nooristani. "He is an innocent man, but he did not receive justice in the courts."

In another case representing the political power of religious conservatives in Afghanistan, journalist Ghows Zalmai faces a 20-year jail sentence for publishing a translation of the Quran in Dari, one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan. Zalmai was arrested in November, 2007 and has also been charged with blasphemy. Conservative religious leaders found his translation to be "un-Islamic," saying it misinterpreted verses. The Supreme Court is currently reviewing his case.

Visit these links:
- HRW: http://tinyurl.com/czyz9o
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/cnfqas
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/print.php3?id_article=30514
For IFEX's Afghanistan page, click here: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/142/

(Photo: Afghan policemen escort Parwez Kambakhsh after he leaves court in Kabul. Photo courtesy of Reuters)

(18 March 2009)

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