Post-Taliban Free Speech Blocked by Courts, Clerics

The magazine Women's Rights included lengthy articles about the role of women in Islam.
The magazine Women's Rights included lengthy articles about the role of women in Islam. (Griff Witte - Twp)
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 11, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan -- When Ali Mohaqeq Nasab returned to Afghanistan last year after a long exile, he thought the atmosphere had opened up enough to raise questions about women's rights and the justice system in his country's nascent democracy.

But now the magazine publisher's provocative essays have put him at the mercy of that system -- imprisoned on blasphemy charges and facing possible execution.

Nasab's case has ignited fierce debate over free speech in a country that has been rapidly modernizing since the end of Taliban rule four years ago, and yet remains deeply rooted in traditional Islamic culture and extremely sensitive about issues of religion and the role of women.

His offense, according to the Afghan courts and conservative clerics, was to contravene the teachings of Islam by printing essays in his monthly magazine, Women's Rights, that questioned legal discrimination against women, harsh physical punishments for criminals and rigid intolerance of Muslims who abandon their faith.

The essays, published in May, attracted the belated attention of a prominent Muslim cleric, who delivered a sermon several months later denouncing Nasab as an infidel. Nasab reported the incident to Afghanistan's justice system, but instead of receiving the protection he had expected, he was arrested, put on trial and sentenced to two years in prison. Nasab, 47, has appealed to a higher court, but so have the prosecutors. They contend the two-year sentence was far too lenient, and that unless he apologizes, he should hang.

"According to sharia law, if he does not repent and if he does not return to his religion, he should be executed," Abdul Jamil, who heads the public security division of the attorney general's office, said, referring to Islamic law.

In an interview last week in his cell, Nasab, a short, soft-spoken man with a graying beard, said he had no intention of repenting and that he could not return to a religion he never left.

"I haven't committed any sin to repent for. If I'm not a sinner, then why should I repent?" he said. "I'm a Muslim, and what I mentioned in my magazine doesn't have a single conflict with my religion. I'm more of a religious person than they are."

Nasab's conviction already has had a chilling effect on other Afghan journalists and threatens to seriously erode freedoms achieved since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, according to Rahimullah Samander, director of the Center for International Journalism here.

It has also put President Hamid Karzai, who heads a fledgling, Western-backed democratic government, in an uncomfortable position. Karzai has repeatedly expressed support for a free press, but the constitution prevents him from interfering in the decisions of the judiciary, which is dominated by religious hard-liners.

A Western diplomatic source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, said various Western embassies expressed concern about the case to the Afghan government and were following developments closely.

Samander said the Karzai government generally has refrained from meddling with the country's nascent but rapidly proliferating media outlets, which include 350 publications, 40 radio stations and four independent television stations. The Nasab case, he said, has thrown all that progress into doubt.

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