Death Sentence for Afghan Journalist for “Blasphemy”

Follows 2003 and 2005 cases

Index on Censorship has the story of Sayed Parvez Kambakhsh, the young Afghan journalist who has been sentenced to death for supposedly downloading and distributing an Iranian article (unidentified) deemed to be blasphemous:

Deeply conservative Afghan clerics, most of whom have never used a computer or the Internet, believe Kambakhsh himself wrote the article and therefore found him guilty of blasphemy.

Because there is no clear punishment for downloading “un-Islamic” articles from the Internet, the primary court of appeal asked clerics to comment. The conservative clerics, who had not investigated the case, demanded the death penalty.

…Afghan Minister of Culture and Information Karim Khuram has said he was sorry to hear that the court has issued a death sentence, but added: “What he did was outside his professional activities and nothing related to journalism. So I have to respect the court.”

Yaqub Ebrahimi, who works for IWPR (Institute for War and Peace Reporting), told me that his brother was being punished for articles and reports that he [Yaqub Ebrahim] had written about local warlords and violators of human rights.

This is in Mazar-i-Sharif in Balkh province, in the conservative north of the country. The BBC has the detail that:

Balkh province’s deputy attorney general, Hafizullah Khaliqyar, warned other journalists that they would be arrested if they attempted to support Kambakhsh.

Further details of Khaliqvar’s outburst are given on Kerala Next, and provide a bit of black comic relief:

Khaliqyar had mistakenly referred to the reporter as “Pervez Musharraf,” the name of the Pakistan president, prompting laughter from the journalists.

“Journalists are supporting Kambakhsh. I will arrest any journalist trying to support him after this,” Khaliqyar stormed.

He also said Kambakhsh had “confessed” and must be punished.

However, according to CNN, Kambakhsh claims that someone else added his name to the document print-out and then distributed it. CNN also notes why Ebrahimi may have been the real target:

Among his best-known pieces was an expose of the “dancing boys,” teenage boys who dress up as girls and dance for male patrons at parties thrown by some commanders in northern Afghanistan.

That report can be seen here, and it includes a condemnation of the practice by Khaliqyar. CNN continues:

In other reports, Ibrahimi has named government officials who extort money from locals, [Jean Mackenzie, country director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting] said.

The day after Kaambaksh was arrested, authorities paid Ibrahimi a visit and combed through his computer and notebooks looking for names of sources who helped him in his reporting, MacKenzie said.

An article by MacKenzie on the subject can be seen here. It quotes Rahimullah Samander, head of the Afghan Independent Journalists’ Association:

“First of all, the arrest of Parwez is illegal,” he told IWPR. “Keeping him in prison for three months was also illegal. The decision by the court and the prosecutor’s office was due to pressure from some political and jihadi groups. This is a plot against Parwez, a well-organised one.”

Karim Khuram, the Minister of Culture and Information who “respects” the court’s decision, is actually not much of a fan of culture – last year he banned a Bollywood film made in Afghanistan entitled Kabul Express and hauled in an actor for questioning. He has also interfered with the running of Radio Television Afghanistan.

This is not the first blasphemy case targeting journalists; back in 2005, Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, who edited a magazine entitled Haqoq-e-Zan (Women’s Rights), received a two-year prison sentence for the crime; it was reduced to six months by the high court in Kabul. Two journalists were also arrested in 2003, as Reporters Without Borders reported at the time:

Sayeed Mahdawi, the editor of the independent, Dari-language weekly Aftab (Le Soleil) and Ali Reza Payam, a journalist with the newspaper, were arrested in Kabul on 17 June because of a column published on 11 June that was deemed to be blasphemous…Headlined “Holy fascism,” the column called for Islam to be adapted to the modern world in the drafting of Afghanistan’s new constitution, condemned the crimes committed in Islam’s name by former mujahideen chiefs, and questioned the supreme court president, a religious conservative close to warlord Abdul Sayyaf. The column also posed the question: “If Islam is the last and most complete of the revealed religions, why do the Muslim countries lag behind the modern world?”

…The government asked a special commission for press freedom and news media evaluation to determine the degree of responsibility of the two journalists before referring the case to the judicial authorities. The information and culture ministry supported the claim that the column was blasphemous. “It was our duty to stop this newspaper’s publication,” the deputy minister said.

This was before Karim Khuram’s appointment as minister.

…Reporters Without Borders revealed on 6 August that the supreme court, in a document that had been kept secret, had also called for the death penalty for Mahdawi and Payam for blasphemy. The 10-page document, signed by the court’s president, confirmed the death penalty request made by the court’s department for fatwas. The government would have been obliged to implement this decision by the country’s highest court, although the case was already before another court, lower in hierarchy. President Karzai had transferred the case to a Kabul civil court fearing the supreme court would hold a blasphemy trial.

The two men were released from jail pending their trial, and they wisely took the opportunity to seek asylum abroad – apparently helped by the same information and culture minister, who doubtless saw this as the easiest way to dig himself out of a hole in the face of international condemnation. This time, though, it looks like that option will not be available, either for the minister’s successor, or for Kambakhsh.

Name variations: Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh; Sayad Parwez Kambaksh; Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi; Aftab; Sayeed Mirhassan Mahdawi;; Sayed Madawi; Ali Payam Sestan; Ali Payam Sestani