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Afghan Supreme Court Rejects Blasphemy Appeal

Journalism student said to be losing hope after failing to get lengthy sentence commuted.
By Jean MacKenzie
The supreme court has upheld Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh's 20-year sentence for blasphemy, dashing hopes of an early release for the student convicted of downloading information on women’s rights from the internet.

The decision, IWPR has learned, was made one month ago, according to Kambakhsh’s lawyer, Mohammad Afzal Nooristani. But the court acted behind closed doors, informing neither the lawyer nor his client about the ruling.

Kambakhsh, 24, was told of the judgement just days ago, from an official at the detention centre where he is being held. The official told Kambakhsh that he had heard of the verdict indirectly. Kambakhsh then told his lawyer, who tried to gain official confirmation from the supreme court.

“They would not let me present my statement, they would not let me in to talk to the judges,” said Nooristani. “In the reception area, they told me the decision had been made a month ago, and sent to the attorney general’s office for the sentence to be carried out. It is very strange that I was not informed.”

Nooristani sought to get more information from the attorney general’s office, but was told the case had been sent to the Mazar-e-Sharif court where it originated. Other than being told that the supreme court had, indeed, upheld the sentence, Nooristani gained very little information.

“They did it secretly because there was no point [of] law on which they could hold Kambakhsh,” said his brother Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, an award-winning journalist who works with IWPR. “They did not want to make it public because everyone would laugh at them.”

There may have been other concerns as well. At the final hearing of the appeals court, one witness shocked those present by recanting previous testimony implicating Kambakhsh. The witness, known only as Hamed, told the judge that he had been threatened and bullied into signing a statement.

Kambakhsh was arrested on October 27, 2007, in his native Mazar-e-Sharif. Then 23, he was a third-year journalism student at Balkh university. The charge centred on an article that he had allegedly downloaded from the internet, criticising in rather caustic terms Islam’s position on women’s rights. University officials claim that Kambakhsh circulated the article among his fellow students, and accused him of blasphemy.

Kambakhsh denies the charge, but signed a confession during the several weeks that he was held incommunicado in a detention centre belonging to the National Directorate of Security. He has told the court that he was beaten and tortured during that time. Medical tests ordered nearly a year after the arrest was inconclusive.

On January 22, 2008, Kambakhsh was sentenced to death in a Balkh court. His brother and several lawyers fought for months to have the case moved to Kabul for appeal, and in May the first hearings were held. But it was not until October 21 that the Kabul Appellate Court commuted the death sentence to 20 years in prison.

Now that the supreme court has denied the final appeal, there are few avenues open to the defence team.

“There is a tiny possibility of reopening the case through the supreme court,” said Nooristani. “If we can present new evidence, they may agree to hear it. “

The other possibility is a presidential pardon, something that foreign embassies, international human rights groups and concerned individuals have been lobbying for discretely.

But according to several western diplomats, they have not been willing to apply too much pressure. “We are supporting an independent judiciary,” said one, speaking privately.

The international donor community has poured many millions of dollars into reforming the Afghan judiciary, spanning several years and involving numerous countries and projects. American funds have built courthouses, while Italian money has trained lawyers and judges.

But, according to Kambakhsh’s defence team, it has not done much good. “There has been very little progress,” said Nooristani. “I do nto want to say that the money has been wasted, but …”

Kambakhsh’s brother goes further. “They built some buildings, they bought desks and chairs,” said Ibrahimi. “But then they gave it all to people, who think just like the Taleban. Why give a new microphone when the guy banging on it is a Taleb?”

Now that the official appeals process has been exhausted, Kambakhsh could be moved out of the detention centre where he has been for the past year, and transferred to prison, either in Mazar-e-Sharif or Kabul. He was briefly held at the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison, and, says his lawyer, is terrified of returning there.

“He is afraid for his life,” said Nooristani.

According to his brother, Kambakhsh is losing hope.

“He is psychologically under a lot of pressure,” said Ibrahimi.

Analysts say the case is a powerful indictment of Afghanistan’s legal system, seven years after the international community arrived to bring the benefits of democracy to this war-torn land.

“The Taleban were very clear,” said Ibrahimi. “They said what they were for and against. But this regime claims to be defending democracy and freedom of speech, while they are actually against these values. They are worse than the Taleban.”

Jean MacKenzie is IWPR’s Afghanistan programme director.

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