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Blasphemy Editor Unrepentant

Journalist has “no regrets” over writing allegedly un-Islamic article that could cost him his life.
By Danish Karokhel

Afghan newspaper editor Mirhosain Mahdavi, who has gone into hiding after being accused of blasphemy, is writing a book defending his controversial opinions.

In an exclusive interview with IWPR, he said that he doesn’t have “a moment’s regret” about writing the controversial article that led to his arrest and brief imprisonment.

“All the state and nongovernmental media are writing against me, so I have the right to defend myself and to make the people aware of the truth,” he said of his decision to write a book.

Mahdavi, editor-in-chief of Aftab newspaper, and his deputy, Ali Raza Payam, were jailed for eight days in June because of two columns they wrote criticising former mujahedin fighters who now hold positions in the government, which led to accusations of blasphemy.

President Hamed Karzai, leader of the country’s transitional administration, ordered their release after pressure from international organisations, but the judiciary is still considering whether they should be prosecuted.

The duo have not returned to Kabul since the row broke out, and, in their absence, the conservative supreme court has issued a fatwa against them, calling for their execution.

Mahdavi asked IWPR not to reveal his whereabouts, but said that he, Payam, and their other colleagues – who fled when the newspaper was shut down – are all safe and well.

The 31-year-old keeps in touch with members of his family through a number of indirect contacts.

The editor explained that he wished to write a book to give people more information about alleged atrocities committed by former mujahedin fighters mentioned in the offending column, which was headlined Sacred Fascism.

He believes the book could be published by the end of the year, although he doubts whether it will be printed in Afghanistan.

The editor spent five years at religious schools in Iran, where he studied various Islamic sects and branches.

His main allegation is that Islam has been misused by men who want to keep hold on power – in Afghanistan and other parts of the world. He believes that his country is ready to hear such criticism - even about its leaders.

Those who use Islam as a shield to justify their actions will attack writers who criticise them as un-Islamic, Mahdavi said, citing his own case. But he says that he didn’t expect such a harsh reaction to his column because he had written controversial articles before.

They have included commentaries on the activities of the Northern Alliance and criticism of the inclusion of the adjective “Islamic” in the country’s official name. These and other articles by Mahdavi, published in March and April, drew death threats from anonymous callers.

Mahdavi acknowledged that his is a dangerous path, but insists that he is not afraid. He even says that he would accept the verdict of a court - as long as it was not controlled by politicians or sharia law.

He claims to be more worried about his fellow journalists and other vocal critics of the authorities back in Kabul, adding, “I am concerned about the fates of those who will be faced with similar problems if they talk about similar injustices.”

A new media law, which is now being considered by Karzai and his cabinet, would refer cases against journalists to a special commission headed by the culture and information minister.

This commission, rather than a prosecutor or court, would decide whether charges be brought. The law is an interim measure, designed to protect journalists from any of the charges outlined in the many articles of the criminal code which specifically target them.

However, this is unlikely to help Mahdavi, who has a fatwa hanging over his head. The editor is now having discussions with the culture and information ministry in an attempt to work out a safe way for him to return to Kabul and resume his work.

Danish Karokhel is an IWPR editor/reporter in Kabul.

Next week: A conservative editor's view of Mahdavi.

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