By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 23, 2005
KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 22 -- An Afghan journalist who was recently sentenced to two years in prison for publishing controversial magazine articles about Islam, women's rights and the Afghan justice system will be released from jail later this week, officials said.
Before gaining his freedom, however, Ali Mohaqeq Nasab had to confront an agonizing choice: formally apologize for what he had published or risk being sent to the gallows.
After refusing for three months to retract his comments, Nasab told an appeals court this week that he was sorry for printing stories that asserted women should be given status equal to men in court, questioned the use of physical punishments for crimes and suggested converts from Islam should not face execution.
A panel of three judges responded Wednesday by shortening his punishment to a six-month suspended sentence, allowing him to walk free.
The case has aroused concern among international human rights groups and stirred contradictory passions in Afghanistan. Religious hard-liners here had called for Nasab's death; free speech advocates, women's rights backers and fellow ethnic Hazaras had asked that he be shown mercy.
As postwar Afghanistan tries to chart a path between religious traditions and modern democracy, Nasab's fate is being seen as an indicator of how much -- and how little -- the country has changed since the ouster of Taliban rule in 2001.
"Nasab's release is an encouraging sign," said Nader Nadery, who heads Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission. "But the case sets a bad precedent in the area of freedom of expression. It discourages journalists and promotes self-censorship."
Nadery said other Afghan journalists had already told him that they "have to be very, very careful in the way that they talk."
Afghan news media have proliferated rapidly in the past four years, with newspapers, radio and television stations sprouting after more than two decades of conflict. According to the new constitution, the media have broad freedom to publish and broadcast without fear of reprisal. But local leaders have physically intimidated reporters, and conservative judges have occasionally tried to punish journalists who broach controversial topics.
Nasab returned to Afghanistan last year following a long exile in Iran and began publishing a magazine called Women's Rights. Articles in the May issue attracted the attention of a Muslim cleric, who denounced Nasab as an infidel during Friday sermons.
When Nasab complained to officials in the justice system in September, he was detained on charges of blasphemy. Prosecutors said Nasab's articles -- including one that claimed God, not the courts, should punish those who leave Islam -- proved he had abandoned his religion. They pushed for the death penalty, but a lower court gave him a two-year sentence.
That decision provoked an outcry among religious conservatives. A council of 200 religious leaders in the southern city of Kandahar issued a fatwa , or religious edict, calling for Nasab to be hanged unless he repented. A division of the Supreme Court took a similar step.
Meanwhile, international human rights groups lobbied on Nasab's behalf, and Western embassies here indicated to the government that they were watching the case closely. President Hamid Karzai carefully straddled the line, expressing support for a free press but insisting he could not interfere in the decisions of an independent judiciary.
One of the appeals judges, Abdul Muqeem Atarud, said Thursday that he had heard from many people on both sides of the issue.
"We told them that if he did not repent, he would be executed. It's the only way," Atarud said. "It says in sharia that if someone repents" for leaving Islam, "he should be forgiven. So that is what happened." Sharia is the Islamic system of justice.
Nasab was still in prison Thursday pending completion of paperwork for his release. In a jailhouse interview last month, he vowed not to apologize and said the charges were trumped up by opponents who dislike him because he is from the ethnic Hazara minority.
Daoud Makaram, one of Nasab's attorneys, said Nasab told the court, "If my magazine caused any misunderstanding among the people, I apologize for that."
Prosecutors still have the right to appeal Nasab's release to Afghanistan's highest court, but several observers said they doubted the outcome would change.
"We are satisfied with what the appeals judges have decided," said Maulavi Ghulam Mohammed Gharib, leader of the Kandahar religious council.