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Kambakhsh to Fight On

Mazar journalism student found guilty of blasphemy gets death sentence commuted – but his family is determined to have conviction overturned.
Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh is finally off death row. But the 24-year-old journalism student who was sentenced to death for blasphemy has little cause to rejoice: he now faces 20 years in jail for the offence.

Kambakhsh’s brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, said that the family will challenge this week’s Court of Appeal verdict, which defence lawyer Mohammad Afzal Nooristani termed “unfair, motivated by the political interests of some people”.

Ibrahimi, visibly shaken, told reporters that the verdict was evidence that the Afghan judiciary was “totally uncivilised”.

“They do whatever they want; they do not care about anything,” he said.

The courtroom was packed on Tuesday, October 21, as journalists, diplomats, and civil society activists gathered for what they hoped would be the denouement of the Kambakhsh affair. The young man has been in prison for nearly a year, and the case has been stalled for over four months in the Kabul Appellate Court.

Parwez Kambakhsh was arrested on October 27, 2007, in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, for allegedly downloading and distributing an article from the Internet that excoriated Islam’s policies regarding women. According to witnesses in court this week, the police action was prompted by a complaint from a fellow student, Ghulam Seddiq.

Ghulam told the court that he was given the article by yet another student, who said that it had been written by Kambakhsh.

“When I began to read, I experienced Islamic emotions,” he said in his statement. “I then went to the security department of the university. I played an active role in getting Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh arrested.”

But the case nearly fell apart with a witness known only as Hamed, a fellow student, who exploded a bombshell just minutes into the trial.

His statement, that he had been given the offending article by Kambakhsh, had been particularly damning at earlier hearings. But this week, when asked if he stood by his statement, he simply said “no”.

“I was forced,” he maintained, telling the court that a professor of literature had taken him to the university director’s office the previous October and there, two strangers, whom he supposed to be from the National Security Directorate, instructed him to write a statement against Kambakhsh.

“I wrote what they told me,” he said. “I was scared. They threatened my mother, my father.”

When prosecutor Akhmad Khan Ayar indirectly threatened him with prosecution for perjury, the young man said, “I accept responsibility.”

Hamed added that, when he was brought face to face with Kambakhsh soon after the latter’s arrest, Kambakhsh looked as if he had been beaten. “There was an injury to his face,” said Hamed. “And when I tried to hug him, he said ‘please stay away from me. My body is in pain.’”

Kambakhsh’s lawyers had claimed that the young man had been tortured after his detention; a medical exam conducted more than six months after the alleged abuse was inconclusive.

The defence lawyer and the prosecutor exchanged heated remarks throughout the process. The presiding judge, Abdul Salaam Qazizada, called for order by banging on one of the dozen or more microphones that nearly hid him from view.

The debate centered on Kambakhsh’s character; a succession of professors from Balkh University were brought in, all of whom complained that Kambakhsh asked provocative questions in class.

“He asked questions that made it seem that he was not sure of his beliefs,” said Shahabuddin Saqeb, a teacher from the Sharia faculty.

Kambakhsh himself could not sit quietly during the trial, rising repeatedly to confront his accusers. When one professor claimed that the young man had asked why Islam was a religion of tyranny, Kambakhsh could barely control himself.

“I asked why Islam is perceived as a religion of tyranny!” he shouted. “I asked what we could do about it.”

The prosecutor repeatedly hectored the defendant, at one point turning to him and shouting, “Do you believe that Allah is One? Allah says that your religion is complete. Do you believe this? Or do you have doubts?”

At one point, the judge threatened to clear the court, as murmurs of protest rose from the back of the room.

After a break for lunch, the three-judge court returned to deliver their ruling.

“The court has sentenced Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh to 20 years fro the crime he has committed,” said Qazizada. “But this is not the final hearing, he has the right to appeal.”

The next step is the Supreme Court, and the defence team will file the appeal soon, according to Ibrahimi.

Diplomats have been working behind the scenes to free Kambakhsh. Some sources have said that they are reluctant to put too much pressure on President Hamed Karzai to release the young student, fearing that this would contradict the principle of an independent judiciary.

“But the trial itself has not been according to legal principles,” said one diplomat, speaking privately.

Karzai is said to be waiting for the Supreme Court to issue its decision, according to sources who have met with him. He has also repeatedly assured Kambakhsh advocates, who range from family members up to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, that the young man will soon be freed.

Kambakhsh was originally sentenced on January 22, in a summary proceedings by a Balkh primary court. The accused was given no access to legal counsel, and no opportunity to defend himself.

His family expended considerable time and resources to have the case moved to Kabul for appeal. The case opened in May, but adjourned after four sessions, on June 15.

Defence lawyer Nooristani has complained publicly that the case has violated all legal time limits set out in the penal code, and that Kambakhsh should be released on these grounds alone.

But this seems to have made little impression on the judiciary.

The next step is the appeal to the Supreme Court; if the high court does not overturn the sentence, there is likely to be renewed pressure on Karzai to pardon the young man.

Just days away from his first anniversary in prison, Kamblahsh showed little emotion when the verdict was read. He looked calm, and a bit more robust than he has at previous appearances.

With the appeal pending, Kambakhsh has been jailed on the premises of the Court of Appeal, a much less harsh environment than dreaded Pul-e-Charkhi prison, where he was briefly held after his transfer to Kabul. According to his brother, Yaqub, Kambakhsh will be able to stay there jail until the Supreme Court delivers its decision.

But given the performance of the Appeals Court, this could take some time.

Jean MacKenzie is IWPR’s programme director in Afghanistan.

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