In 2005, Prince Harry was forced to apologise for wearing a swastika armband to a fancy-dress party. Now hailed as a national hero, Prince Harry’s reformation is complete. Earlier this year, while Harry was attracting headlines around the world as a soldier-prince for his military service in Afghanistan, a very different story of an idealistic young man, the same age as Harry, was being played out in another small corner of that troubled country. A twenty-three-year-old Afghan journalist had also caused ‘offence’, but received a vastly disproportionate punishment for his ‘misdemeanour’. On 22 January 2008, Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh was sentenced to death for blasphemy, after being held without trial for three months.
The writers’ organisation PEN is campaigning for the release of Kambakhsh, a journalism student at Balkh University and reporter for the local daily Jahan-e Naw (The New World), who was arrested on 27 October 2007 in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan for distributing allegedly anti-Islamic literature. He was detained by security forces on blasphemy charges after downloading and giving to friends an article from Iran that allegedly said the Prophet Mohammed ignored women’s rights. It apparently poked fun at Islam by questioning why men are allowed four spouses but women are not. He has denied authorship of the article. He was also accused of possessing allegedly anti-Islamic books and starting un-Islamic debates in his classes.
According to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), the journalist had no legal representation or opportunity to defend himself, and sentencing took place in a closed session: ‘It was about 4pm when guards brought me into a room where there were three judges and an attorney sitting behind their desks. There was no one else,’ Kambakhsh told IWPR, and ‘the death sentence had already been written. I wanted to say something, but they would not let me speak.’ He continued: ‘They too said nothing. They just handed me a piece of paper on which it was written that I had been sentenced to death. Then armed guards came and took me out of the room, and brought me back to the prison.’
Kambakhsh’s brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, has worked as a staff reporter for IWPR for the past four years and he is convinced that Kambakhsh is being targeted in reaction to his own revelations about the power of political and armed factions in the north. He has reported for IWPR on issues of extreme sensitivity, such as ‘the continuing abuses by strongmen who maintain paramilitary forces and undermine the rule of law in defiance of the central government’s disarmament efforts’. He has himself been repeatedly warned off controversial reporting, but has said that ‘the people who are threatening me had nothing official against me. There was nothing they could use to arrest and imprison me.’
Ibrahimi, who is in his final year studying law at Balkh University, believes the verdict and sentence against his brother are illegal and unfair, and claims that the court announced its decision without considering human justice, the laws of Afghanistan, or Sharia (Islamic) law. ‘The case should have been assessed by the ministry of information and culture. His file was not assessed by experts’, he told IWPR.
It is believed that the court was pressured by various political groups and the former mujaheddin; although their forces have been disbanded, there remain powerful factions in the north with representatives holding key positions of state and some retaining the support of paramilitary forces. According to The Independent, conservative clerics and tribal elders have urged the government not to overturn the death penalty, and over 100 religious and tribal leaders attended a rally in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, in support of the verdict. The province, in eastern Afghanistan, borders Pakistan’s tribal belt and is home to many of Afghanistan’s hardline mullahs.
Until recently, Kambakhsh was locked up with criminals and terrorists in Mazar-i-Sharif and his brother, Ibrahimi was concerned about threats that he was receiving. His request for the transfer of his brother to Kabul finally succeeded, allowing Kambakhsh to be separated from criminal detainees. His March transfer has given rise to hopes that his appeal will not be influenced by religious fundamentalists. It may also indicate that his appeal hearing is imminent.
Human rights organisations are pressing President Hamid Karzai to intervene personally in this case as a matter of urgency, and release Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Kambakhsh’s case has attracted interest among fellow students worldwide, and there is a defence group set up on Facebook with over 1,000 members. The Independent launched a petition calling for the death sentence against Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh to be lifted, and gathered nearly 90,000 signatures. Britain’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has lobbied President Karzai to reprieve him.
Readers may like to send appeals expressing shock at the death sentence handed down to Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh on blasphemy charges and call for President Karzai to intervene as a matter of urgency to secure his immediate and unconditional release in accordance with Afghan law and Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Please send appeals to:
His Excellency Hamid Karzai
President of the Islamic State of Afghanistan
c/o His Excellency Ambassador Rahim Sherzoy
31 Prince’s Gate
London SW7 1QQ
Fax: +44 (0) 207 584 4801