Politicized Case Shows Grave Threat to Freedom of Expression
(New York) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai should issue a pardon for Parwez Kambakhsh, a student and part-time journalist, whose 20-year prison sentence for blasphemy has been upheld by the Supreme Court, Human Rights Watch said today. The Supreme Court decision was the final stage in a highly politicized case that has repeatedly flouted Afghan and international law and highlighted the lack of professionalism among the Afghan judiciary.
The court upheld the sentence on February 11, 2009, without informing Kambakhsh or his lawyer, or allowing the lawyer to submit arguments in Kambakhsh's defense. On March 7, the lawyer, Azfal Nooristani, discovered that the decision had been made.
"The Supreme Court represented the last hope that Parwez Kambakhsh would receive a fair hearing, but once again justice was denied," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Kambakhsh has committed no crime. Now it is up to President Karzai to act on principle and free him."
Threats, prejudicial statements, and political interventions have marred the Kambakhsh case from the outset. "This case has been a conspiracy, it is about politics," Nooristani told Human Rights Watch. "I had a legal right to see the Supreme Court judges, but they would not see me; they did not let me submit my defense statement. They had already made up their minds."
Kambakhsh was detained in Balkh province on October 27, 2007, accused of writing and distributing an article that criticized the role of women in the Quran. Kambakhsh says he merely downloaded the article from the internet and sent it to friends. While in detention, Kambakhsh says, he was forced to sign a confession under duress.
On January 22, 2008, the Primary Court in Balkh sentenced him to death for blasphemy in a trial that lasted only a few minutes. No evidence was presented, and Kambakhsh was not given access to legal representation. It later emerged that the judges had accepted as evidence against Kambakhsh statements from fellow students and teachers that he asked "difficult questions" in class, a cell phone text message joke he had sent to a friend, and a history book found in his bedroom.
In October 2008, the Court of Appeal upheld the conviction against Kambakhsh and commuted his sentence to 20 years in prison. The proceedings of the appellate court also had grave legal flaws. The prime witness for the prosecution retracted his statement, telling the court that he had been forced to make it because he had been threatened by the security forces. This was the sole piece of evidence that linked Kambakhsh to the article, a fact that was ignored in the court's written decision.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern for Kambakhsh's safety. Kambakhsh has been informed that he will be transferred to Pul-i-Charki prison or to a prison in Balkh province, where in either case he believes he will be under threat from fellow prisoners. "The government says they will now move Kambakhsh to another prison, but there are Taliban and other Jihadis there," said Nooristani, his lawyer. "He thinks he will be killed. He is an innocent man, but he did not receive justice in the courts."
Human Rights Watch called upon the government of Afghanistan to take all necessary steps to ensure the safety of Kambakhsh and to detain him in a prison where he will not be at risk.
Human Rights Watch said that the Kambakhsh case is emblematic of a general diminution of freedom of expression in Afghanistan. In February, the Payman Daily newspaper was forced to close after it was accused of apostasy by the Ulema Council (a council of clerics). The paper had published an article downloaded from the internet about the apocalyptic prophesies of a Bulgarian mystic and self-proclaimed clairvoyant known as Baba Vanga, who raised questions about the afterlife. Staff members received death threats and the news editor, Nazari Paryani, spent 10 days in detention. Charges appear to be pending against him.
Another journalist, Ghows Zalmai, is facing a 20-year jail sentence for blasphemy after publishing a translation of the Quran in Dari, one of the languages of Afghanistan. The Supreme Court is currently reviewing his case.
"The Karzai government is allowing blasphemy cases against the press to go forward to keep the support of religious conservatives," said Adams. "Afghans were silenced by the Taliban, and do not want to be silenced again. The government must recommit itself defend freedom of expression."