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(New York) - A journalism student sentenced to death for “blasphemy” should immediately be released and his conviction and sentence set aside, Human Rights Watch said today. His arrest demonstrates the continuing power of the country’s notorious security services and radically conservative judges.

On January 22, a court in the northern Afghan province of Balkh sentenced 23-year-old Parwiz Kambakhsh to death for circulating an article about women’s rights in Islam he had downloaded from the internet. A panel of three judges ruled that the article constituted “blasphemy” and sentenced Kambakhsh to death in accordance with Sharia (Islamic) law. He denies that he is guilty of blasphemy and is appealing his conviction.

“Kambakhsh’s case demonstrates how fragile freedom of expression is in many parts of Afghanistan, and the lack of progress that has been made in establishing a professional judiciary,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is an embarrassment to the Karzai government, which has failed to take judicial reform seriously and allows a brutal and conservative security service to do whatever it wants.”

The Afghan security services arrested Kambakhsh on October 27, 2007, and held him for eight days before handing him over to the prosecution and judicial services. Since his arrest, Kambakhsh has been held in three different prisons over three months and denied access to a lawyer at all stages of the process. His brother, Yaqub Ibrahimi, told Human Rights Watch that while detained by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Kambakhsh was beaten and threatened with execution until he signed a confession. In his court appearance on January 22, he faced the judges and a prosecutor alone. He was given his death sentence without a hearing.

The day after, the regional prosecutor, Hafizullah Khaliqyar, threatened to imprison all journalists who support Kambakhsh.

“Comments by government officials calling for the imprisonment of all journalists who defend Kambakhsh show why Afghans have so little faith in the country’s system of justice and judicial independence,” said Adams. “Every day that Kambakhsh has a death sentence hanging over him is another day of mental torture for this young man.

On January 28, the Senate of the Afghan parliament issued a statement supporting the death sentence given to Kambakhsh, but revoked the statement two days later.

Yaqub, a journalist with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), told Human Rights Watch that his brother was arrested in retaliation for his writings on human rights abuses by militias and armed factions. In October 2007, Yaqub published a series of articles in the Afghan and international media about abuses and violence committed against women and children by local warlords in northern Afghanistan. In response, he was repeatedly threatened by local armed groups and the NDS. His home and office in Mazar-e Sharif, Balkh province, were searched several times before the NDS arrested his brother.

In large parts of Afghanistan no formal judicial system is in place and only tribal and other customary forms of justice are practiced. Yet, even where a formal justice system operates, basic rights of due process and fundamental freedoms are often not respected, as demonstrated by this case.

Many international donors have urged the government of Afghanistan to institute a transparent system for the appointment and vetting of judges and to replace unqualified judges. Efforts to train the judiciary and to build institutional capacity are ongoing, but have failed to take on the deeply entrenched traditionalists in the judiciary, many of whom have close links to notorious warlords.

“The failure of donors to make the building of a professional judiciary a priority is one of the most widely acknowledged failures of the post-Taliban period,” said Adams. “Yet nothing serious is being done to address this huge problem. Kambakhsh is now paying the price for this.”

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently cruel and unusual form of punishment and a violation of fundamental human rights.

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