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.
"If they release him, they will show to everyone that they are serious about press freedom," Samander said. "If he is kept in jail, all this talk about press freedom will amount to nothing."
Karzai's spokesman, Karim Rahimi, said the government strongly supports free speech but cannot do anything to influence the courts. "The judiciary system is entirely independent," he said.
In his magazine, Nasab suggested that a woman's testimony in court should be given the same weight as a man's, rather than half. He also questioned whether cutting off the hands of thieves was too severe a penalty. Finally, he argued that it was up to God, not to man, to punish Muslims who convert to another religion.
Nasab, who studied Islam at a university in Iran, ran afoul of the government there after he published a book questioning its religious authority. After returning to Afghanistan, he began writing increasingly controversial articles based on views he said were supported by a careful reading of the Koran and shared by other Islamic scholars. But some Afghan religious leaders disagreed vehemently, and several campaigned for his arrest this fall. Turning to the judiciary for help, Nasab walked into a Kabul courthouse Oct 1. -- and was promptly handcuffed.
Just two weeks later, he was put on trial for blasphemy. The outcome was never in doubt, according to Ahmad Nader Nadery, who heads the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
"The way the trial was conducted, it was very obvious that there was an intention that . . . without respect to rules and procedures, they were going to punish him," Nadery said, noting that Nasab was not allowed to choose an attorney and was shouted down by prosecutors and judges when he tried to speak.
Indeed, Nasab's essay in May amounted to a challenge of the very justice system that is now prosecuting him. Nevertheless, one of the judges said Nasab got a fair hearing and that his sentence offered "a great chance" for him to reconsider and apologize.
"We listened to him very carefully," said Alhaj Ansarullah Maulavi Zada, who heads the public security court. "We listened to him a lot. We gave him a three-day trial. But he couldn't answer the court. He was not showing any kind of remorse. He still said changing your religion is forbidden but it is not a crime."
Nasab contends that his prosecution was political, engineered by religious hard-liners who see him as a challenge to their authority and who are also biased against him because he is an ethnic Hazara. The Hazaras, distinctive for their Asian Pacific facial features, have long occupied the lowest rung in Afghan society. Mostly Shiite Muslims in a Sunni-dominated society, they have been victims of massacres, relegated to menial jobs and often forced to live in extreme poverty.
Even with press freedom protected by law, Afghan journalists have faced their share of constraints. Outside the capital, the Afghan news media are especially vulnerable if they challenge local powers such as militia leaders. A reporter in Nangahar province was recently taken hostage for a week after he wrote a story critical of authorities there.
"My colleagues are under threat," said Shukria Barakzai, editor of the newspaper Women's Mirror. "They haven't got any security, any safety while they are working."
Barakzai said Nasab's case should never have gone to the courts. A government-appointed media commission found him innocent of the charges against him. But not all of his fellow journalists have been so supportive.
Mohammad Fahim Dashty, editor of the Kabul Weekly newspaper, said Nasab chose the wrong time and place to raise such volatile issues. Dashty's newspaper has attacked the Karzai administration and the United States on warlordism and drugs. But he said Nasab crossed the line when he took on basic tenets of Islam.
"We know that Afghanistan is a very unstable country," he said. "We know that the tradition of religion here is very strong. So when you say something which is very new and which you believe, but nobody else does, it's dangerous. "It's a risk, and sometimes you have to pay for it. He is paying for it now."
The new Afghan constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but the law governing media says journalists should not discuss matters of religion or national security. The exact boundaries of what is permissible are ill-defined, and the courts seem inclined to interpret the limits rigidly.
After Nasab's conviction, the Supreme Court issued a religious edict, or fatwa, saying he "should be given the harshest punishment, so he will be a lesson to others." A group of 200 religious scholars and clerics in the southern city of Kandahar recently issued a fatwa that said he should be given three days to repent or be hanged.
"It is up to the central government whether they execute him," said the group's leader, Maulavi Ghulam Mohammed Gharib. "We have simply sent our message." Gharib said he had not read Nasab's magazine but had seen him interviewed on television.
Nasab conceded he was "concerned" by the fatwas against him. But he said he would not back down and hoped Karzai or international officials would intercede on his behalf.
"I made one mistake. When I heard there was democracy in my country, I came back because I'm an educated person and I wanted to help," he said. "I didn't know that still there was no democracy, still there was the influence of the Taliban and still there is the culture of the Taliban regime."