Blasphemy, Death Penalty and Afghanistan’s Future

By Simin Fahandejsadi

A journalism student was sentenced to death in Afghanistan. He is charged with downloading and distributing an article he found online that criticized the rights of women in Islam.

By Simin Fahandejsadi

A journalism student was sentenced to 20 years in an Afghani prison. He is charged with downloading and distributing an article he found online that criticized the rights of women in Islam.

Yaqub Ibrahimi vividly remembers the day his brother, Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh was arrested. It was around ten in the morning on October 27, 2007. Four guards from Afghanistan’s national security service came to their small apartment, arrested Parwez and left.

“They carelessly messed up my room and took my documents and papers with them,” Yaqub told King’s Journalism Review over the phone from Afghanistan. “That’s when the whole story began.”

The security officers took Parwez to the Mazar-i-Sharif Prison and after a four-minute trial, sentenced him to death on January 22, 2008. Parwez was actually luckier than most convicted of “blasphemy” in Afghanistan. He is still alive. An appeal court recently overturned the death sentence but ordered Parwez to spend the next 20 years in prison.

Immediately after the sentence was imposed, press and human rights organizations around the world rose up to defend him. The cause soon became not only a fight to save a journalist’s life, but a battle to salvage the country’s fragile democracy.

“This case has become so symbolic, so political,” Katherine Borlongan, executive director of the Canadian section of Reporters without Borders said.”We’re talking about a death penalty … If we lose this case, what is that going to mean to all of the other young Afghans who dream about freedom?”

Organizations and individuals around the world have circulated petitions, written letters to the Afghan government, sent out press releases and urged governments to stand up for Parwez.

In an open letter dated 11 June 2008 to President Hamid Karzai, Reporters Without Borders wrote, “You must be aware, Mr. President, of the case of the young journalist, Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, which has shocked the entire world. Reporters Without Borders urges you ….to give a clear undertaking that your government will protect press freedom, which is currently under so much threat in your country.”

Who is Parwez?

Before being imprisoned, Parwez was a third-year journalism student at Balkh University in Mazar-i-Sharif in the northern province of Balkh. He was also editor-in-chief at Jahan-e Naw Daily, a publication in his province, and wrote for his school paper.

The 23 year old student loved to read and write. According to Yaqub, Parwez had qualities rare in Afghanistan. He was open to ideas different from his own and was an advocate of human rights. “He was always reading. Sometimes I would see him awake at two or three in the morning reading when he had to go to class at 7:00 am the next day.

Yaqub, himself a reporter in Afghanistan, works for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, an organization that trains Afghan journalists. His articles are often critical of the warlords and the religious fundamentalists in Afghanistan. He believes his work was one of the reasons for Parwez’s imprisonment, that authorities wanted to show journalists the consequences of not just blasphemy but of criticizing the government.

“By imprisoning Kambakhsh they wanted to silence me,” He said. “But if we want to be true journalists and reporters in a country like Afghanistan we have to be prepared to face these consequences. We know what can happen to us before we commit to our job.”

Certainly, it can happen suddenly. Parwez was reported to the Afghan intelligence service by his professor and some students at his university for having written and distributed an article insulting to Islam. The intelligence service then investigated and arrested Parwez.

He was taken to prison, where he was tortured. During his time in prison he confessed to downloading and distributing the article but later denied it. He said that he was forced into the confession and that he did not write or distribute it.

On January 22, 2008, in a trial that consisted of three judges, a scribe and Parwez, he was sentenced to death for blasphemy. He had no legal representation and only a few minutes to defend himself.

“What they called my trial lasted just four minutes in a closed court.” Parwez said in an interview with the newspaper, The Independent. “I was told I was guilty and the decision was that I was going to die.”

The article Parwez was accused of distributing was written by an Iranian man in Switzerland who calls himself Arash Bikhoda — or Arash the Godless. Arash, in his Myspace profile, describes himself as “a freedom fighter, republican, capitalist, naturalist, secular humanist, and against Islam.” His article is a list of passages in the Quran that he believes are the proof of the inferior status of women in that religion.

The article starts off this way: “In world’s history Islamists have always been accused of anti-women (beliefs) and for their disregard for the basic rights of women. This essay will show how these anti-women beliefs are rooted in the teachings of their Quran.”

The language of the article is strong. Perwaiz Hayat, professor of South Asian religions and Islam at Dalhousie University said that although Parwez’s intentions were not bad, the article is an insult to the identity of Muslims.

“What Parwez did was courageous in a way,” he said. “He wanted to create that awakening in the minds of people. (But) Muhammad is the identity of Muslims. The moment you talk badly about Muhammad, you’re talking badly about their identity. This kills them: how dare can you do that?”

So, where is Afghanistan’s freedom?

The real question then, is, has Afghanistan progressed enough to allow for freedom of belief, expression and the press?

There are contradictory laws in the Afghan constitution. Article 34 says “freedom of expression is inviolable. Every Afghan has the right to express his thought through speech, writing or illustration or other means.”

But for Parwez and others like him, the freedom is not so absolute.

Article 3 of the constitution says that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” And article 45 of the Afghan Media Law forbids the publication of any materials contrary to the “principals and provisions” of Islam.

Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 the fight in Afghanistan has been a fight for freedom and democracy against fundamentalism, Yaqub said. “We know that fundamentalist groups are very active in Afghanistan,” he said. “And if there isn’t a strong pressure on them they will destroy anyone they can by their dark beliefs. It’s possible that we or others will be sacrificed in this midst, but it’s OK. We know that these problems will help change the views of people about human (rights).”

Kamran Mir Hazar, a friend of Yaqub and Parwez and editor-in-chief of the website Kabul Press News believes freedom of the press is in retreat in Afghanistan. He was an Afghan reporter who was imprisoned and tortured several times. He escaped from Afghanistan a year ago and is now living in Norway, writing articles about violations of human rights in his home country.

“They accused me of being a spy and working for a spy agency,” Kamran said. “This, for a journalist is a very insulting accusation. There are laws in our constitution that say (the intelligence service) isn’t allowed to arrest journalists but they are trying to change this.”

Regardless of the world wide support Parwez has received, he is not popular with everyone at home.
In an interview with an Iranian website called Aatash, a Muslim preacher by the name of Muhammad Abdu’l-Ghaher Ab’ul-Asrar, who preaches at a Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, said he supports the sentence given to Parwez.

“Agreeing with infidelity is the same as infidelity,” he said. “If a Muslim man leaves his religion, he has three days to come back to Islam. If he doesn’t, his punishment is death. Parwez’s three days has come to an end!”
But not all Muslims feel that way.

“This article may be objectionable,” said Dr. Jamal Badawi, a Muslim scholar, Imam and professor at Saint Mary’s University. “But you don’t just sentence people like that. Even apostasy, as a matter of just conviction is not subject to capital punishment.”

The Worldwide Cry for His Release

For many organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and Reporters Without Borders, the issue is bigger than the offensiveness of an article. It’s about the violation of a basic right in a country struggling for freedom.

“When you persecute or imprison a journalist you are saying something more,” said Julie Payne, manager of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. “Because … you are talking about not just taking away the voice of that journalist but taking away the voice that was going to talk to all of those people, and all those people that will not get news because that person has been imprisoned.”

Payne’s organization has written letters to the Canadian government asking it to use diplomacy to obtain Parwez’s release. The Canadian government, however, has never responded and it is not clear whether it has taken any action.

Even though the death sentence has now been reversed, advocates for Parwez aren’t giving up the battle. In a statement on its website, Reporters Without Borders said, “Afghan justice has again failed to protect Afghan law and guarantee free expression. By sentencing this young journalist to imprisonment, the appeal court has eliminated the possibility of his being executed, but it has also exposed the degree to which some Afghan judges are susceptible to pressure from fundamentalists.”

Parwez’s defence lawyer has promised a renewed appeal, this time to the Afghan supreme court, and called on Afghan President Karzai to intervene, Agence France Presse reported.

One reason this story has received unprecedented attention is because of the effort and money governments have contributed towards Afghanistan, Kamran believes. It has become like their child and it’s hard to see that small hope for change vanish.

“People’s money has gone to this cause,” said Kamran. “In America, in Canada, people’s taxes are going towards bringing freedom to Afghanistan and it’s disappointing to see this.”

Parwez’s case has even been noticed by the students and faculty at University of King’s College.

Fred-Vallance Jones, assistant professor of journalism at King’s, started a petition and drafted an open letter to President Karzai. The faculty at King’s and many students signed the petition and voiced their concern for Parwez.

Stephen Kimber, Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism and the acting director of journalism at the time, said whether the petition had an impact doesn’t matter. It matters that a group of people made the effort to speak out.

“Our job is to ask questions and we have to be able to ask those questions in an environment that doesn’t put your life at risk,” he said. “And when you see that being threatened in a situation like this, it is important to speak out.”

Payne believes the responsibility of helping journalists such as Parwez is on our shoulders as much as it is on our government’s. “I talk to these (journalists) who have lived their entire lives in a war-torn country and expect that the country will be continue to be in war,” she said. “And, yet, they have the optimism and the belief that what they are doing is so important that they will risk their lives to do it … you just think, the very least we can do is add our voices and tell our government that we care about this.”

Meanwhile, Parwez Kambakhsh is still in prison and awaiting his fifth appeal hearing. His brother said his psychological state is worsening every day. He has been moved to a prison in Kabul where terrorists, murderers, thieves and kidnappers are also kept. According to his brother the condition of the prison is horrifying with 10 to 30 people in one small cell. It is extremely hot in the summer and unbearably cold in the winter.

“The prison is a very inhumane place,” Yaqub said. “Parwez used to read a 100-page book in one day but now, when I take him books to read, he cannot even finish reading one or two lines in months. He is being psychologically tortured. I am extremely worried that the damages will be long term.”

There is not much else Yaqub and others can do to minimize the damage being done to Parwez. “Hoping is the only thing that is keeping us going now,” he said. “We are hopeful that the pressures from the international community will have an affect on the government and they will release him ….”

“And I want to say that if the world keeps silence about issues like these, it is, in fact, creating the most ideal situation for the fundamentalists.”