Condemned Afghan Journalist Wins Right to Appeal Death Sentence
A young Afghan journalist, sentenced to death in January for spreading feminist criticism of Islam, has been granted an appeal, according to one of the international organizations monitoring his case.
The writer, Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, 23, was transferred on March 28 from prison in the remote province of Balkh, in northern Afghanistan, to the capital, Kabul, according to Jean MacKenzie, program director in Afghanistan for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting. The London-based Institute is an international advocate for press freedom.
The move, Mackenzie said in a telephone interview, was accompanied by promises from officials in the government of President Hamid Karzai that Kambakhsh would be freed.
MacKenzie credited international protests in the wake of the death sentence as a key factor in getting Kambakhsh out of the control of regional religious and secular authorities. She also said that within Afghanistan, protests in several cities organized by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a banned group, had made local citizens aware of the case.
“There is a belief that the charges were trumped up as a political move,” MacKenzie said. She added that Kambakhsh and his brother, also a journalist, had been outspoken about the rise of warlords in the north and the breakdown of centralized government authority. The transfer to Kabul effectively removed Kambakhsh from local jurisdiction.
“Privately, sources in the government have assured the family that Parwez will be released, but the family are not yet certain of that,” MacKenzie said.
Kambakhsh, a journalism student at Balkh University and correspondent for Jahan-e-Naw (The New World), a local daily newspaper in the Balkh city of Mazar-i-Sharif, was arrested Oct. 27, 2007. The National Directorate of Security charged him with downloading and distributing anti-Islamic propaganda, according to the Institute and reports from other organizations reporting on the case.
The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that the material in question concerned the role of women in Islamic society. A report from PEN, the international organization of writers and editors, reported that the material “allegedly said the Prophet Mohammed ignored women’s rights.”
“He was also reportedly accused of possessing allegedly anti-Islamic books and starting un-Islamic debates in his classes.”
Kambakhsh has vehemently denied downloading or distributing the material. A local trial was held on Jan. 22.
“It was about 4 p.m. when guards brought me into a room where there were three judges and an attorney sitting behind their desks,” Kambakhsh reported to the institute at the time. “There was no one else. The death sentence had already been written. I wanted to say something, but they would not let me speak.
“They too said nothing,” Kambakhsh continued. “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.”
News of the “trial” and death sentence sparked protests from human rights and journalists’ organizations, including International PEN, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Committee and Reporters Without Borders.
On Jan. 31 Kabul demonstrators, organized by RAWA, marched in support of Kambakhsh, shouting “Long live democracy!” and demanding his release, ending up in front of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan.
“This case is not an anomaly,” MacKenzie said. “It is symptomatic of what is happening in Afghanistan, the weakening of power at the center and the rise of local powerbrokers.
“It’s entirely possible that if things continue this way,” she continued, “Afghan society will not look that different from the way it was under the Taliban.”