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

Journalists Demand Justice for Kambakhsh

The appeals process has stalled and there seems to be little political will to ensure a fair outcome.
By Hafizullah Gardesh
All over Afghanistan, journalists, writers and activists gathered on July 8 to press their government to release Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh.

Kambakhsh, who has been in prison since last October, faces the death penalty for insulting Islam. His alleged crime consists of downloading an internet text critical of Islam’s restrictions on women, adding a few comments of his own, and circulating it at his university.

The 23-year-old journalism student has denied the charges, and has claimed that security officials coerced a confession from him during his first days in detention.

A primary court in Balkh province passed the death sentence in January, and the case is now stalled at the Kabul court of appeal.

The act of solidarity was initiated by journalist unions and writer’s groups in at least 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. At each location, dozens of activists signed petitions that were submitted to the provincial government.

In Herat province, in western Afghanistan, more than 200 people signed a statement reading, “Based on the constitution and the commitments made by Afghan president Hamed Karzai to defend freedom of expression and speech, the signatories to this letter demand that the government implement justice in Kambakhsh's case.”

Ajmal Yazdani, a reporter in Herat, told IWPR that Kambakhsh was being treated unfairly.

“As far as I know, Kambakhsh is completely innocent,” he said. “The officials of this country should take all legal principles into consideration and resolve this case in an open trial.”

The original sentence was passed at a closed hearing in Balkh. While the appeal hearings have been open to the public, the process has been less than transparent.

Kambakhsh’s claims of torture were brushed aside after an inconclusive medical examination, and those close to the case have alleged that witnesses and lawyers have been pressured by the security services.

The last session was adjourned on June 15, with no date set for the resumption of the trial. (For a report on that hearing, see Saving Parwez Kambakhsh, ARR No. 293, 16-Jun-08)

Sayed Ismail Mushfiq, editor in-chief of Naway-e Kohsar in Jowzjan province, signed a petition that was submitted to the provincial governor there. It said that the government had “turned the Kambakhsh trial into a show which it wants to exploit for political ends. This is unacceptable to those who defend freedom of speech, and in signing this statement, we ask for an end to the political machinations surrounding the case.”

Qayoum Babak, spokesperson for the Balkh province chapter of the South Asia Free Media Association, told IWPR that dozens of journalists, writers and poets gathered in the public library in Mazar-e-Sharif to sign a resolution demanding an immediate review of the Kambakhsh case, and for his release.

“We submitted the resolution to the provincial governor so that he can give it to the chief justice,” said Babak. “The writers and journalists of Balkh province demand that the Afghan chief justice does not make a poor young Afghan citizen the victim of political games.”

Many have see the case as a test of the power of religious conservatism in Afghanistan. Soon after his arrest in October, 2007, Kambakhsh’s case was referred to the provincial Ulema, or Council of Religious Scholars, who demanded the death penalty. While their ruling was not legally binding, it was made so by the primary court in Balkh.

Members of the government have made both public and private promises that the case would be resolved fairly. However, there has been little movement in recent weeks, and Kambakhsh’s defenders are struggling to retain hope of a speedy release.

In Kabul, a similar petition was handed in to the Supreme Court. Few journalists and writers attended, however – perhaps because of a major suicide bombing the previous day that killed 41 and injured scores more.

“There was a state of emergency in Kabul,” said Waheed Warista, a writer, poet and member of the Pen Club, an international support network for writers.

“Therefore we were not allowed in to see high-ranking officials at the Supreme Court, and had to submit the petition at the gate.”

He said no response was forthcoming from the court. IWPR tried repeatedly to contact Supreme Court officials, without success.

Warista joined in the condemnation of the charges against Kambkahsh.

“It is not logical,” he said. “The government should ban the internet, because anyone can read any kind of information there. It really is very funny.”

(For the background to the case, see Hopes Dashed for Afghan Journalist’s Release, ARR No. 291, 02-Jun-08; Afghan Journalist’s Death Sentence “Political”, ARR No. 281, 28-Jan-08; and Afghan Reporter Sentenced to Death for Blasphemy, ARR No. 280, 22-Jan-08.)

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s local editor in Kabul. Noorrahman Rahmani is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.

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