Afghan Reporter's Death Sentence Draws Wide Condemnation

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 25, 2008

A death sentence handed to a reporter in Afghanistan has prompted the United Nations and several press freedom organizations to urge the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to intervene in the case.

Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, 20, a reporter for the daily Jahan-e Naw and a journalism student at Balkh University, was arrested Oct. 27 in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, an area where mullahs hold particular influence over law and cultural life.

His alleged offense was distributing to classmates a report, printed from a Web site, commenting on a Muslim woman's right to multiple marriages. The article, written in Farsi, which is close to the Dari language spoken in Afghanistan, questioned why men are allowed to have four spouses in Islam while women are denied the same right.

Without a lawyer to represent him, Kambakhsh was hustled Tuesday into a small hearing room where three judges and a prosecutor conducted a five-minute proceeding, according to his older brother.

He was then handed a piece of paper saying he had acted against Islam and should be executed, said the brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, who visited him in prison Wednesday night.

"There was no defense lawyer, no human rights adviser, no family member, no discussion, nothing," Ibrahimi, a 26-year-old journalist, said by telephone from Mazar-e Sharif. "They did not let him explain. It was a joke."

On Thursday, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan issued a statement saying: "The pressures for punishment, warnings to journalists, as well as the holding of this case in closed session without Mr. Kambakhsh having legal representation point to possible misuse of the judicial process. This would not serve the cause of justice."

Organizations such as the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which has offices in Kabul, the capital, said the charges against Kambakhsh are aimed at intimidating his older brother, Ibrahimi, who recently published an article implicating an Afghan legislator in a series of killings and kidnappings.

"This is a freedom of expression case," said Vincent Brossel, the Reporters Without Borders official in charge of the Asia-Pacific region. "Ibrahimi, who is the more senior and experienced journalist among the brothers, has been under threat for months. And the arrest and sentence was a way to gag him."

In Kabul, Jean MacKenzie, country director for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, which trains Afghan journalists and for which Ibrahimi has written, told the Associated Press that the charges against Kambakhsh were fake.

"We feel strongly that this is a complete fabrication on the part of the authorities up in Mazar," she said.

A prosecutor in Mazar-e Sharif recently warned journalists not to express public signs of support for their imprisoned colleague.

Ibrahimi said he was still writing, but also moving constantly to avoid arrest.

"I am being careful and I am concerned, but I am working and doing my job," he said. "I may be risking death, but I should accept the challenge."

Brossel and Ibrahimi said that in provinces far from Kabul, mullahs and a council of clerics are more powerful than the government. "We hope the power of international pressure on President Karzai will influence him to act," Brossel said.

Under the Afghan constitution, which acknowledges the precedence of sharia, or Islamic law, Kambakhsh could not be held for more than three months without charge.

According to Afghan law, defense lawyers may appeal the lower court's decision. Ibrahimi, who has consulted with mullahs, said he was told that his brother could have been released after three days if he had apologized.

Said Tayeb Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, confirmed that Kambakhsh has the right to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. "This is just a recommendation by the council of clerics," Jawad said of the sentence, adding that he has taken the matter up with the foreign affairs minister. "It does not have binding power."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company