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Journalist freed; another killed in raid

Journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh imprisoned for downloading an article on women's rights was secretly pardoned by President Hamid Karzai
Journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh imprisoned for downloading an article on women's rights was secretly pardoned by President Hamid Karzai

AP/Musadeq Sadeq via CPJ

There was good news and bad news coming out of Afghanistan this past week. After being sentenced to 20 years in prison, journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh was secretly pardoned by President Hamid Karzai weeks ago, report the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the International Press Institute (IPI).

Journalists also paid tribute to an Afghan journalist and interpreter who was killed during a military operation to rescue him and a "New York Times" journalist abducted by the Taliban on 9 September in Kunduz, report the three members.

Kambakhsh, who was arrested after downloading an article critical of Islam's position on women's rights, has left the country for fear of reprisals. IFJ says his "release from prison is a rare victory for journalists, media workers and press freedom advocates who remain constrained by the authority of clerical powers to overrule Afghanistan's constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and the press."

Kambakhsh was detained in October 2007 in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on a charge of "blasphemy and distribution of texts defamatory of Islam." At the time of his arrest he was a journalist for the daily "Janan-e-Naw" and a journalism student.

RSF had handed a petition for Kambakhsh's release with several thousand names to a presidential adviser in Kabul. IFJ campaigned heavily for his release with local Afghan groups. Many foreign governments had interceded with Afghan authorities on his behalf and the London-based "Independent" newspaper had gathered more than 100,000 signatures on a petition for his release as well, says RSF.

The Council of Mullahs and local officials pressured a Mazar-i-Sharif court to originally sentence Kambakhsh to death in a summary trial in January 2008, says RSF. Security forces tortured him to obtain a confession. The sentence was commuted to 20 years in prison in October 2008.

According to news reports, the case was seen to be a political burden for Karzai. "Now his role in rectifying something which was widely seen as a miscarriage of justice will be lauded by the West, human rights groups and progressive opinion in Afghanistan. But he will face opposition from religious conservatives, which may prove electorally costly if there is a second-round run off at the polls," reports "The Independent".

Meanwhile, Stephen Farell, a "New York Times" reporter held captive by militants in northern Afghanistan for several days was freed in a military commando raid, but his release is overshadowed by the death of Sultan Munadi, his Afghan interpreter.

"Munadi represented the best of Afghanistan," David Rohde, another "New York Times" reporter who was himself kidnapped near Kabul last November, told RSF. "It was an honour to work with him. An extraordinary journalist, colleague and human being."

Farell and Munadi were seized by armed gunmen on 5 September while they were reporting on a NATO raid on two oil tankers that had been hijacked by Taliban militants, says IPI.

According to IPI, during the raid Munadi had run forward shouting "Journalist!" when he was shot. It is unclear whether he was shot by allied or Taliban gunfire. Farell dived in a ditch and shouted "British hostage!" British troops then told him to approach.

The "New York Times" had asked for the story not to be covered to avoid endangering the journalists and putting any rescue attempts at risk, a request that was widely respected by news organisations worldwide, reports IPI.

IFJ and RSF have called upon the NATO leadership in Afghanistan and British authorities to investigate the circumstances which led to Sultan's killing and consult with local journalists' groups about their safety needs. "All options must be considered in a kidnapping case, but the tragedy that took place this morning in northern Afghanistan raises many questions," RSF said.

"The killing of Sultan brings into sharp focus the issue of safety of local personnel who are employed by foreign media organisations in Afghanistan," says IFJ. "We must ensure that, like all reporters, they are properly trained to work in dangerous conditions."

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