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

Kabul Marchers Demand Journalist Release

Protesters say executing Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, facing the death penalty for alleged blasphemy, would mark the end of free speech and democracy.
By IWPR Afghanistan
As columns of people marched through the streets of Kabul holding portraits of journalist Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, it was strange for me to see his image appear so many times, held by so many hands. Parwez is my brother.


It was just a little over a week since a first-level court in the northern Afghan province of Balkh had passed a sentence of death against Parwez.



The world media had snapped to attention, but for me it was especially important to see my own Afghan countrymen and women staging a demonstration for my brother, and for freedom. The January 31 protest was organised by the Afghanistan Solidarity Party.



Many of the participants told me that although they did not know Parwez personally, they were marching to protect freedom of expression and democracy in Afghanistan.



With shouts of “Long live democracy!” and “We demand Parwez’s release!”, the demonstration went on for almost two hours, ending up at the front gate of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, where the protesters issued a statement.



“If the government wants to settle accounts with those who are against religion, then why does it not punish those who drove nails into people’s foreheads under the banner of Islam, those who roasted people alive in containers, those who ripped people’s chests open, and who committed other unforgivable crimes like rape,” said the statement.



The words referred to the ongoing debate within Afghan society about accountability for the terrible human rights abuses perpetrated during the long decades of war. While many people would like to see those accused of the worst excesses brought to justice one day, President Hamed Karzai has admitted frankly that he is powerless to take on the “warlords”, the militia leaders who are held largely to blame for the death and destruction of the Nineties.



The point the protestors were making was that if such major figures are to go free despite the accusations levelled against them, why are the authorities venting their anger on a young journalism student?



Many of those gathered were angry at the way that Parwez’s case has been handled. He was denied access to a lawyer, the court was convened with no advance notice, and sentence was handed down on January 22 in a closed session.



Parvez denies committing the crime of blasphemy and totally rejects the charge that he downloaded an offensive article from the internet which was circulated at Balkh University, where he is a student. (See Afghan Reporter Sentenced to Death for Blasphemy, ARR No. 280, 22-Jan-08.)



“If the Balkh court has any evidence to prove that Parwez is guilty, they should present it to the people,” said a 19-year-old female protestor, Nilab. “The trial was extremely unfair, and we demand that the court review it. Parwez did not even have a lawyer, and it is not clear what he has done - why should he be executed?”



Nilab called on the outside world to intervene, saying, “The international community spends so much money on Afghanistan, they should guarantee freedom of expression. They cannot let an innocent person be put to death.”



Another protester Attaurahman, echoed Nilab’s views.



“If Kambakhsh is executed, the concept of democracy is dead in Afghanistan,” he said. “The present government will not differ from the first Taleban regime. We do not want to go through that again, so we are demonstrating for freedom of expression.”



There has been some good news on Parwez’s case. The upper house of parliament has retracted its backing for the death sentence, saying its initial decision to uphold it was a “technical error”.



According to Attaurahman; “The Senate is not authorised to make these kinds of decisions. They have to wait for the [higher] courts to rule on it. We regard their action as a political response.”



The death penalty would have to be upheld by two higher courts of appeal and then by signed off by President Hamed Karzai before it could be carried out.



Masoud Matin, spokesman for the Afghan Solidarity Party, told me his group was supporting Parwez because they were sure the sentence was unjust.



“Like all democratic parties, we are obliged to defend democratic values and freedom of expression,” he said. “Kambakhsh is a journalist and his civil liberties have been violated, so we must support him.



He added, “Those who passed this sentence have no understanding of Islam. They are trying to portray Islam as a horrific religion in [the eyes of] the world and to defame Afghanistan.”



On the day the demonstration took place, dozens of journalists called me to say how gratified they were at the level of public support the case was receiving. Journalists in the north of Afghanistan were especially happy - they were the first to hold demonstrations opposing the detention of my brother.



“God supports us because we are right and Kambakhsh is innocent,” said Jan Mohammad Habibi, a reporter for Killid Radio in Balkh. “Now people have understood, and they are supporting Kambakhsh.”



Harun Najafizada, a freelance reporter in Balkh, expressed similar satisfaction at the support Parwez was getting.



Some observers caution that extreme sensitivity is needed to ensure that the protests do not become counter-productive.



“It is right that the demonstrations show the wide public support for Parwez. Thousands of other people may also support him, but they may be unable to protest because of concerns for their own security,” said Mohammad Nabi Aseer, a political analyst based in Balkh.



“However, if the demonstrations are not carefully planned, and were the protesters to get carried away with their slogans, the mullahs and the Islamists could be provoked and respond badly.



“What is important is getting this journalist released. Kambakhsh’s life is more important than any sort of demonstration or protest.”



Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter based in Mazar-e-Sharif.