Afghanistan: Kambakhsh sentence cannot stand
11 Mar 09

kambakhsh2We must do everything in our power to secure the release of the young Afghan journalist, says Padraig Reidy

News is emerging that Sayed Parvez Kambakhsh, the young Afghan journalist who appealed a death sentence for blasphemy handed down last year by a Mazar-i-Sharif court, has had a sentence of 20 years imposed by Afghanistan’s Supreme Court in Kabul. The sentence was apparently passed in secret last month, with the knowledge of President Karzai and US administrators in Kabul.

It had been hoped, perhaps even assumed, that Kambakhsh would not serve a jail term for his supposed ‘blasphemy’. The appeals court, in October, commuted his sentence to 20 years, with the right to appeal to the Supreme Court. At the time his appeal to the Supreme Court was announced, it was widely assumed that the sentence would be overturned, or failing that, the president would issue a pardon. In previous blasphemy and apostasy cases, the ‘guilty’ had been allowed to leave the country.

Shockingly, this option does not appear to be available to Kambakhsh. A palpably angry letter from his brother and fellow reporter Yaqub on the Kabul Press website posted

yesterday states: ‘Kambakhsh has never experienced a jury of his peers. His trials for blasphemy have all been held in secret. We, Parwiz’s family, just found out about this sentence today. There was no difference between this Supreme Court trial and the unjust four-minute Mazar provincial trail, where Parwiz was sentenced to death.

‘We thought a bit of justice could be found in the capital of Afghanistan; in the highest level of the Judiciary. Even President Karzai assured the world that justice would be carried out. However this secret decision shows that there is no justice in Afghanistan — at any level. An examination of this case shows that there are no grounds in international law to keep Kambakhsh in prison.’

Seven-and-half years after the Taliban were routed from Kabul, it’s depressing that this kind of sentence should stand. While it may be foolish to imagine that all Afghanistan needs is more troops and more money in order to transform it in to a secular democracy, one would still have hoped, as Kambakhsh did when he appealed, that the highest court of a system backed by the EU and the US would at least pay some heed to free expression.

Not so. In September last year, the Afghan government passed a law prohibiting materials that are offensive or contrary to Islam and other religions, materials propagating other religions apart from Islam, and ‘materials and reports disrupting the public’s mind’.

One could see that the material Kambakhsh was accussed of spreading — critiques of the role of women in Islam — could fall under any of these categories.

Surely, we cannot stand idly by as such gross injustice occurs. But President Obama’s declaration that he is willing to talk to ‘moderate’ Taliban members puts western powers in a very difficult position. Can one feasibly stand up for this young Afghan’s right to free expression while simultaneously making sympathetic noises to people who, in all likelihood, would have been happy to see the original death sentence on Kambakhsh carried out? Perhaps not.

But what is clear is that whatever governments do, it is up to us in civil society, no matter what our views on Nato troops’ presence in Afghanistan, to make a stand for Sayed Parvez Kambakhsh.

This article was originally published on Comment is Free