Story Behind the Story

Afghan Reporter Sentenced to Death for Blasphemy

It all started with a phone call in mid-October, when one of my brother’s classmates called to tell me that Parwez had been arrested by the National Directorate of Security, NDS.

But two hours later, Parwez, who is a few years younger than me, walked into the rooms we shared. He told me that the NDS had picked him up for the second time.

“They accuse me of writing a story that explains the Koran’s position on women,” he said. “But I told them that I knew nothing about it, and they let me go.”

Parwez told me that the text the NDS were interested had really been written by some Iranian on the Internet; he had had nothing to do with it, he said.

That very day my friends told me not to sleep in my rooms. They said that the rooms were being watched. But I did not take them seriously.

I was laughing and joking still; I did not know that our lives were about to get very, very complicated.

The next day a number of students threatened a demonstration against the writer of the article. They issued a statement and published it in thousands of copies.

This went on for many days, and I kept Parwez from going to the university. I wanted him to stay out of sight, because the mood of the crowd was very ugly. I wanted to get him somewhere safe, but there was no one to help.

On October 27, a number of students who claimed to be representing the entire student body told me, “We have spoken with the governor and Parwez should go straight to the NDS, in order to keep the situation from deteriorating.”

We thought they just wanted to question him again, but when Parwez went to the NDS, they locked him up.

That day they sealed my office, too. I had to spend the night at a friend’s house.

The next day, five NDS officers entered my rooms and began a search. The first thing they did was to confiscate my reports’ notebooks. They also inspected all of the files in my computer.

I did not understand what they were looking for, but they kept on going.

They were there for hours. Finally they picked up “The Story of Civilization” by Will Durant and some materials on women’s rights, and took them away with them.

I did not know that Will Durant was considered anti-Islamic.

After that I stopped living in my rooms and went to stay with friends.

Parvez spent eight days in detention, it was difficult to visit him there and during that period I only met with him twice for five minutes. Nothing more was allowed. Parwez looked tired and worried.

After eight days he called me and said that he had been transferred to the central jail. I rushed over to see him, and we could talk freely for the first time.

Parwez told me that he had been questioned more than 20 times a day, and threatened with death.

“Finally I screamed that I could not stand anymore,” he told me. “I said ‘what do you want from me?’

“The interrogators told me to write down that I had taken the article from the Internet and published it,” said Parwez. “They said they would release me if I wrote this, but instead they handcuffed me and took me to the prosecutor’s office.”

Parvez’s case remained with the prosecutor for almost a month. I would bring him food and clothing once or twice a week.

Meanwhile, the Ulema, or Council of Religious Scholars, issued a statement calling for Parwez’s execution. Later, the case was transferred to the Balkh primary court.

I spoke with the judge; he said that we would do something to save Parwez from the death penalty. I thought he meant it.

Once in mid-September, Parwez was called to court. I saw him being taken there, in shackles and with soldiers around him. I was not allowed to speak to him.

He spent three hours in the court, during which time he said that he was a Muslim and would never do anything to earn the hatred of other Muslims.

A group of journalists tried to help Parwez, and met with the Provincial Council. The Council studied the case, but said that “since there are contradictions between the prosecutor’s accusations and Parwez’s statements, we must wait for the courts to make a decision”.

Then the journalists held a press conference demanding that Parwez be released. But after the press conference the authorities became very angry, and the prosecutor warned that he would arrest anyone who defended Parwez.

The governor, Noor Mohammad Atta, told reporters on January 21 that he was not involved in the case.

We might never have had any more information – the authorities did not tell us anything. But my father happened to be passing by the courthouse on January 22 and saw Parwez in shackles. He rushed over to him, and Parwez handed him a piece of paper.

My father called me, his voice shaking with emotion.

“The paper said ‘execution’,” he said, then the phone went dead.

I went to see Parwez. He looked very worried, and I asked him what was wrong.

This is what he told me, “A number of policemen came around 1:00 pm and took me to the court house. I sat in a room there for three hours, then I was taken to another room. There were three judges and an attorney. They gave me a letter, it had already been prepared, and told me it was my sentence. They would not let me speak. The hearing lasted just five minutes, then the police put me in a vehicle and took me back to prison.”

I tried to reassure my brother. “Don’t worry, there are still many courts ahead of you,” I told him.

He was trying to cover it up, but he could not hide his fear.

At 8:00 my mother called. She was crying, because she had heard on the television that Parwez had been sentenced to death. Even though I told her there were three other courts still ahead, she would not be consoled. She kept crying as if her son were about to be executed that very night.

Now we are looking for a lawyer who knows about modern technology and the Internet. We want to check and see whether this article actually exists.

We have also been trying to have his case transferred out of Balkh province, to Kabul. Parwez’s life is in danger in Balkh. But the level of bureaucracy is such that the process could take a month or two. In that time, the Balkh courts could hold the next trial.

There are officials who could help us transfer the case quickly, but we cannot reach them. They will not let us into their offices; they will not take our phone calls.

The NDS now has a signed confession, even if it was forced from Parwez. But even with the confession they should not have given him the death penalty. This is not according to Sharia law.

So we are convinced this is a political case. I am quite sure that it is directed at me, for my reporting on the warlords in the north. The authorities did not want to arrest me directly – then they would have to admit that it was an action against the media. This way they pressure me and claim it has nothing to do with freedom of the press; it is a blasphemy case.

What I cannot figure out, and what I have told journalists from all over the world when they interview me, is why is the international community focused only on the Taleban? The warlords are just as dangerous. We see that here – in the case of my brother, Parwez.

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s editor in Kabul.


Link to original article by Hafizullah Gardesh and Jean MacKenzie in Kabul. Published in ARR No. 280, 22-Jan-08.

The Story Behind the Story gives an insight into the work that goes into IWPR articles and the challenges faced by our trainees at every stage of the editorial process.

This feature allows our journalists to explain where they get the inspiration for their articles, why the subjects matter to them, and how they personally have felt affected by the often controversial issues they explore.

It also shows the difficulties writers can face as they try to get to the heart of a story.


Also in this issue

Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh’s real offence may have been to have a brother whose frank reporting has exposd abuses in northern Afghanistan.
IWPR reporters investigate reports of atrocity by foreign troops in Helmand.
Mullahs grumble about “un-Afghan” foreign TV series, while the rest of the population is glued to the screen.
Taleban take credit for blast that killed seven at Lashkar Gah’s central mosque.