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Writer Could Face Death Sentence

Freedom of expression is a dangerous concept in Afghanistan, and could cost one man his life as well as his liberty.
By Wahidullah Amani
The well-publicised case of a magazine editor jailed for blasphemy could soon take a more ominous turn, with a state prosecutor threatening to press for the death penalty.



Mohaqeq Nasab, editor of Huquq-e-Zan, Women’s Rights, was found guilty of blasphemy on October 22, and sentenced to two years at hard labour.



Nasab’s offence included publishing articles that, among other things, questioned the Islamic precept that a women’s testimony in court carries only half as much weight as a man’s, and the harsh punishments meted out for adultery, theft and heresy.



His theoretical musings were deemed an insult to Islam, and he was duly arrested, charged and sentenced. Now Zmarai Amiri, the capital’s chief prosecutor, is asking a court of appeal to impose a harsher punishment.



"The decision made by the lower court on Muhaqeq Nasab will in no way satisfy the public prosecutor's office. The court has given him two years imprisonment. Nasab must be punished more severely, up to and including execution,” Amiri told IWPR.



Nasab’s arrest has been condemned by organisations defending press freedoms inside Afghanistan and also by international media rights groups, such as Reporters Without Borders and the United States-based Committee to Protect Journalists.



But those defending the embattled editor could soon find themselves in legal difficulty, with the prosecutor threatening to arrest and imprison anyone who springs to Nasab’s defence, including members of the government’s own media commission.



“There are some people who speak irresponsibly through television and newspapers, without knowing anything about Islamic law, the Afghan constitution or Afghan law. We have decided to arrest and interrogate these people, too,” said Amiri.



According to the prosecutor, arrest warrants have already been issued. On November 15, political analyst Azizullah Mamnun, who had spoken publicly on Nasab’s behalf, was detained, questioned, and later released.



If the prosecutor’s office makes good on its threats, it will have to arrest, among others, the deputy minister of information and culture, Sayed Ahmad Fazel Hussein Sancharaki, who serves as head of the media commission in the minister’s absence.



"The media commission assessed all the articles published in the magazine, and found nothing to support a charge of blasphemy,” Sancharaki told IWPR.



According to the deputy minister, the arrest, trial and imprisonment were all illegal, and Nasab should be released.



“In my opinion, Nasab’s arrest and trial, as well as his detention in jail, are against the media law,” asserted Sancharaki.



Others threatened with arrest include Rahimullah Samander, head of Afghanistan’s Independent Journalists’ Association and member of the media commission. While Samander laughs off the threat of arrest and imprisonment, he is deadly serious in his defence of Nasab.



“The media commission is satisfied that Mohaqeq is neither an infidel nor an apostate. He is not trying to promote depravity. It is all a misunderstanding,” said Samander.



“We have asked President [Hamed] Karzai to let Nasab go. If he does not do this, then freedom of the press is being trampled underfoot in Afghanistan.”



One of the main points of contention is Nasab’s statement that human beings have a right to question and interpret individual strictures of Islamic law, or Sharia.



“We believe that the main sources of Sharia are God’s scripture and human wisdom,” he wrote in his magazine.



Just as controversial is his assertion that there is no difference between men and women as court witnesses. According to Islamic law, the testimony of one man is equivalent to that of two women.



“The importance in men’s and women’s testimony is the same in all fields and on all issues,” wrote Nasab.



But according to a fatwa or ruling issued in September by the highest council dealing with legal matters, this statement could be punishable by death. The Dar-ul-Ifta, the council of religious scholars within the Supreme Court responsible for issuing fatwas on Islamic issues, ruled that Nasab had contradicted verses of the Koran, which is not allowed under Islam.



The punishment for apostasy is clear, according to the council, whose fatwa quoted one of the Hadiths, a collection of writings documenting the life and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, saying, “Whoever changes or denies any verses of the Holy Koran will legitimise their own execution.”



But Muhammad Daud Noori, a lecturer in the department of law and political science at Kabul University, says that Islam is not quite as cut and dried as that on this issue.



“There is no limitation on freedom of expression in Islam. Every Muslim has the right to express his opinion," Noori told IWPR.



“This kind of intolerance, where no one can give an opinion about religion, is like Christianity in the Middle Ages. We have had a lot of clerics, poets and intellectuals who have commented on Islamic principles. Not only have they not been punished, they were admired for their contributions,” said Noori.



According to Sancharaki, Nasab’s case is evidence of judicial anarchy in Afghanistan, “If this continues, we will see other similar cases, which will not benefit democracy or the media in this country.”



Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.

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