Afghan journalist gets 20 years for insulting Prophet Mohammad

October 22, 2008

Afghan journalist Kambakhsh attends hearing at court in Kabul, 21 Ocy 2008/Omar SobhaniThe sentencing of an Afghan journalist to 20 years in jail for distributing an Internet article that said the Prophet Mohammad had ignored the rights of women has raised questions about freedom of expression and possibly the rising influence of hardline Islamists in war-ravaged Afghanistan. But is there politics at play here as well?

Sayed Perwiz Kambkhash, 23,  a reporter for the  newspaper Jahan-e-Naw (“New World”), was sentenced to death in January for insulting the Prophet after his arrest a few months earlier in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The trial reportedly took five minutes and he was not allowed to offer a defense. The appeals court commuted that sentence to 20 years.

Death sentences for blasphemy sound like something the Taliban would impose, but Mazar-i-Sharif is far from being  a Taliban redoubt. It was once a stronghold of the old Northern Alliance, which backed by U.S. firepower, ousted the Taliban from power after the Sept. 11 suicide airliner attacks. The capital of Balkh province, Mazar-i-Sharif, is home to the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, the “Blue Mosque” revered by Shias. The dominant language is Persian (Uzbek is also spoken) and ties with Iran have traditionally been strong. The Pashtu-speaking Taliban, who are Sunnis from eastern and southern Afghanistan, have little to do with that part of the country.

But could they have some influence after all? The journalist watchdog group Reporters Without Borders said The Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, 9 Feb. 2002/Claro Cortesthe case has exposed the extent to which judges have been vulnerable to pressure from Islamists. The case also come at a politically intriguing time. President Hamid Karzai’s administration has begun quiet talks with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia, aimed at finding a political solution to a conflict that has become more intensified seven years after the 9/11 attacks.

To complicate the issue even further, the jailed journalist’s brother has linked the case to his own writings that have been critical of local politicos and warlords.

So here’s the question Afghan watchers will be looking at in the weeks to come. Is Kambkhash’s case a sign of hardline Islam becoming ascendant in Karzai’s Afghanistan after an initial period of tolerance? Or is he a pawn in the incessant political skirmishing among tribal warlords?

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