Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Reporter Sentenced to Death for Blasphemy

A young journalist in the north of Afghanistan faces the death penalty in what observers say is a well-orchestrated campaign of intimidation against the media.
By Hafizullah Gardesh, Jean MacKenzie

A journalist in northern Afghanistan, Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, has been sentenced to death for blasphemy in a summary trial in which he had no legal representation and no opportunity to defend himself.



Sentencing took place in a closed session of the lower court of Balkh region on January 22.



“It was about four pm when guards brought me into a room where there were three judges and an attorney sitting behind their desks. There was no one else,” Kambakhsh told IWPR.



“The death sentence had already been written. I wanted to say something, but they would not let me speak.



“They too said nothing. They just handed me a piece of paper on which it was written that I had been sentenced to death. Then armed guards came and took me out of the room, and brought me back to the prison.”



Kambakhsh is a third-year journalism student at Balkh University, and also reports for the Jahan-e-Naw daily in Mazar-e-Sharif. He was arrested on October 27, 2007, on charges of distributing anti-Islamic propaganda.



The accusation was based on an article from the internet that had been circulated around Balkh University, ostensibly signed by Kambakhsh. The student insists he had nothing to do with the paper and did not sign it.



Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, Kambakhsh’s brother and a staff reporter for IWPR, is adamant that his brother neither downloaded nor distributed the material, which was written by an Iranian and criticised certain aspects of Islamic precepts on women.



“This article was downloaded from the internet. Why should Parwez be punished?” he said. “The court has announced its verdict without considering human justice, the laws of Afghanistan, or sharia [Islamic] law. It was based solely on the attorney’s accusation, and Parwez was ignored absolutely.”



Ibrahimi, who is in his final year studying law at Balkh University, believes this case was handled in an illegal and unfair manner.



“The case should have been assessed by the ministry of information and culture. His file was not assessed by experts,” he said. “This verdict and sentence are unfair.”



The information ministry would not comment, but spokesman Hamid Nasiri told IWPR that ministry officials were meeting to discuss the case and would release a statement at a later date.



Haroon Najafizada, secretary for the South Asian Free Media Association in northern Afghanistan, is concerned at the way this case has been handled and its implications for free speech.



“This sentence was passed in closed session. The media should have been present,” he said. “If things continue like this, freedom of speech in northern Afghanistan will be in serious jeopardy, and reporters will begin to censor themselves.”



On January 21, the day before sentence was passed, a group of journalists gathered in the Balkh governor’s office to protest Kambakhsh’s continued detention.



According to Najafizada, the prosecutor threatened reprisals if the media did not back down.



“Hafiz Khaliqyar, the prosecutor for Balkh, spoke to us in a very bad tone,” said Najafizada. “In front of the governor and all of the authorities in Balkh, he said that he would arrest anyone who defended Kambakhsh.”



Rahimullah Samander, head of the Afghan Independent Journalists’Association, condemned the sentence.



“First of all, the arrest of Parwez is illegal,” he told IWPR. “Keeping him in prison for three months was also illegal. The decision by the court and the prosecutor’s office was due to pressure from some political and jihadi groups. This is a plot against Parwez, a well-organised one.”



The term “jihadi groups” refers to the former mujahedin which fought Soviet occupation in the Eighties, and later took part in years of domestic civil war. Although their armed forces have at least in theory been disarmed, the factions remain powerful political actors in the north, with representatives holding many key positions of state and some retaining the support of paramilitary forces.



Samander called on President Hamed Karzai, the Supreme Court, and the Afghan parliament to get involved in the case.



Karzai, who is attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, has so far been silent about the matter.



“We defend Parwez, and we call on all of Afghanistan’s media associations and the international community to speak out,” said Samander.



Farid Hamidi, spokesperson for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Committee,was reluctant to speak about the specifics of the case but he did criticise the manner in which the legal process was handled.



“In all courts, especially in capital cases, the accused should have a lawyer attorney. All the legal and human rights guarantees should be observed. And the accused should have the right to defend himself,” he said.



Speaking about his brother’s ongoing detention in December, Yaqub told IWPR he was convinced that his brother was being targeted in reaction to his own revelations about the power of political and armed factions in the north.



In the four years that Ibrahimi has reported for IWPR on Afghanistan’s northern region, he has consistently covered issues of extreme sensitivity, such as continuing abuses by strongmen who maintain paramilitary forces and undermine the rule of law in defiance of the central government’s disarmament efforts.



At the time, he said that he had himself been repeatedly warned off controversial reporting, but that “the people who are threatening me had nothing official against me. There was nothing they could use to arrest and imprison me”.



The case will now make its way through higher courts which have powers to overturn the sentence on appeal.



Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s editor in Kabul.
Jean MacKenzie is IWPR’s Country Director.


Also see Story Behind the Story, published  in ARR Issue 281, 30-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.
 

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