Tom Blackwell, Canwest News Service
Published: Tuesday, October 21, 2008
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The brother of the Afghan journalism student who now faces 20 years in prison for blasphemy says countries like Canada must lobby hard against the harsh punishment if they care at all about justice and freedom.
On Tuesday, an appeal court overturned the death penalty meted out to Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh in January, sentencing him instead to 20 years in prison. His lawyers and supporters had expected him to be freed.
Kambakhsh’s brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, told Canwest News Service he is sure Islamists pushed President Hamid Karzai and the appeal court to impose the stiff penalty. The judges, who are “living in the Middle Ages,” did not understand the case and readily complied, he said.
Afghan journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, 23, attends his hearing in Kabul on Tuesday.
Today’s decision was taken due to the pressures of some extremists and fundamentalists,” said Ibrahimi, a journalist himself. “They didn’t have any reason to put him in jail for even one day. But in Afghanistan, we do not have the rule of law, we have the rule of interests.”
His brother is alleged to have downloaded an article from the Internet that questions some tenets of Islam concerning women’s rights and to have asked about it in class.
He now has one more chance – an appeal to the Supreme Court – and that is where countries like Canada come in, said Ibrahimi.
“There is a lot of pressure by the fundamentalists. If there is no pressure by the international community, I don’t think the Supreme Court will have a different decision,” he said.
“Canada is one of the biggest supporters of Afghanistan. It must ask President Karzai why it is spending millions and millions of dollars for democracy and justice and freedom (when cases like this happen).”
Kambakhsh was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death after a brief, closed-door trial in Mazar-i-Sharif. Under Muslim Sharia law, which is incorporated in the Afghan constitution, insulting Islam is illegal and blasphemy punishable by death.
The original ruling prompted outrage from human-rights groups such as Paris-based Reporters without Borders. But it was also welcomed by some Afghans, who rallied against the defendant and even made death threats against his lawyer.
Citing factors such as the secretive trial and alleged torture of the accused in jail, Kambakhsh’s defence team believed he would be cleared on appeal.
The 24-year-old has already spent a year behind bars, most of it in Kabul’s infamous Pul-e-Charki prison. Ibrahimi said his brother, not surprisingly, is “shocked” by the decision.
“He was a student and also a local journalist. It is completely psychologically and physically hard for him to have to stay in the same cell for months and months.”
But he said the consequences of the judgment reach far beyond just his brother.
“This decision was against freedom of expression in Afghanistan, it was against freedom in Afghanistan, it was against democracy in Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan’s burgeoning news media have been buffeted from a variety of critics, including religious conservatives, the government, the U.S. military and insurgents. Last month, an ex-journalist was sentenced to 20 years in prison for publishing a translation of the Qur’an that allegedly contained errors.
Ibrahimi said the appeal court judges in his brother’s case did not even seem to understand the technology at the heart of the prosecution. One asked him whether it was possible to print out an article from the Internet. “They are just living in the Middle Ages.”
Meanwhile, Reporters without Borders condemned what it called a “shameful” decision.
The group said in a statement the appeal proceedings “were marred by ideological distortion, a glaring lack of evidence and incomprehensible delays that ended up undermining the court’s serenity.”