Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Pervez Kambaksh speaks out from death row

An Afghan journalism student on death row told the British newspaper The Independent last week he wasn't allowed to have a lawyer nor speak in his own defence during his trial. Speaking from his jail cell in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh told The Independent the judges had made up their mind about the case without him saying a word. They sentenced him to death after a hearing which lasted just four minutes. “The way they talked to me, looked at me, was the way they look at a condemned man,” he said “I wanted to say 'this is wrong, please listen to me', but I was given no chance to explain."

The 23 year old Kambakhsh’s troubles began in October 2007 after he downloaded material from the Internet which was deemed to be offensive to Islam. The document was from an Iranian site and discussed women’s rights. Kambaksh then distributed a few copies among friends. He is a student at Balkh University and a journalist for Jahan-e Naw (New World). He was first questioned by teachers of religion from the university. He was then arrested and interrogated by the Afghan national intelligence service. He had fallen foul of Article 33 of the media law which states that the media is forbidden to violate Islam and its principles.

On 6 December he made his first appearance in a Mazar-i-Sharif court. He was charged with blasphemy and disseminating defamatory comments about Islam. Proceedings concluded without any evidence being presented before the court. On 22 January he faced court again to hear the devastating news. The judges said the article humiliated Islam, and members of a clerics council had pushed for Kambaksh to be punished. He was sentenced to death after a cursory hearing

Initially Afghanistan's upper house of parliament backed the death sentence in late January. The Afghan Senate issued a statement on the case. The statement was not voted on but was signed by its leader, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, an ally of President Hamid Karzai. It said the upper house approved the death sentence conferred on Kambaksh by the city court of Mazar-e-Sharif. The statement also strongly criticised institutions and foreign sources which, it said, pressurised the country's government and judiciary as they pursued the Kambaksh case.

One day later however, the Upper House withdrew its support after legal experts said that the senate's support for the sentence was unconstitutional. The senate was criticised for its intervention which critics said interfered with the judicial process. Senate secretary, Aminuddin Muzafari, told journalists its statement had been a "technical mistake". It is likely that international pressure was brought t bear from either the US or the UN. The UN had said that Kambaksh was not legally represented during his case. There are two more courts of appeal before the case would reach Karzai for a final decision.

Fellow Afghan journalist Mir Hussain Mahdavi was forced to leave his country in 2003 after he was issued with a death sentence by Afghan Supreme Court. Mahdavi has issued a form letter to Hamid Karzai which called on him to lift the death sentence imposed on Kambaksh and also asked that he take steps to ensure freedom of the press and free speech in Afghanistan.

Mahdavi was a crusading Afghan newspaper editor, whose democratic views raised the ire of Islamic leaders in Kabul. Mahdavi and his family (wife and two daughters) were granted emergency refugee status in Canada in October 2003, after the Afghan Supreme Court decided to try him for defaming Islam and impose a death penalty. Mahdavi was editor of the independent Kabul weekly Aftab (The Sun), and he was arrested and charged with violating an Afghan press law prohibiting the publication of material considered defamatory to Islam.

Many people believe that Kambaksh’s sentencing is related to the human rights activities of his brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, a well-known journalist with the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. Ibrahimi wrote several damaging reports about corrupt practices by government officials and local warlords. At the time of his brother’s arrest, Ibrahimi's office was sealed and his home searched by the National Directorate of Security (NDS). He has been the subject of several death threats and intimidation in the past. Human rights organisation Front Line believes the trial of Kambaksh is an attempt to dissuade his brother and other journalists from reporting on political affairs in Afghanistan.

Although operating under the most liberal press laws in the region, Afghan Journalists face very difficult situations when reporting news. They have been targeted by Taliban fighters, extremist groups and gangsters involved in the opium trade. The Kabul government has also intimidated journalists and warned them to stop writing articles critical of Afghan officials. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists there is a “running battle by the government against Afghanistan’s young and combative press corps.”

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