Karzai urged to pardon Afghan journalist convicted of blasphemy
Human Rights Watch has appealed to Afghan President Hamid Karzai to pardon Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, a young journalist sentenced to 20 years in prison for blasphemy. This case, brought against him for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammad by distributing to friends an Internet article critical of women’s rights in Islam, led to a death sentence by a provincial court, but that was later reduced to 20 years on appeal. Kambakhsh has denied the charges.
(Photo: Afghan police escort Kambakhsh from court in Kabul, 18 May 2008/Omar Sobhani)
Human Rights Watch said the Afghan Supreme Court upheld this verdict in February without informing Kambakhsh or his lawyer or allowing them to argue in the journalist’s defence. The lawyer only learned of the decision on March 7, it said in a sttement.
“The Supreme Court represented the last hope that Perwiz Kambakhsh would receive a fair hearing, but once again justice was denied,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Kambakhsh has committed no crime. Now it is up to President Karzai to act on principle and free him … The Karzai government is allowing blasphemy cases against the press to go forward to keep the support of religious conservatives. Afghans were silenced by the Taliban, and do not want to be silenced again. The government must recommit itself to defend freedom of expression.”
(Photo: Kabul protest against Kambakhsh’s initial death sentence, 21 Jan 2008/Ahmad Masood)
Human Rights Watch said Kambakhsh would be transferred to Kabul’s Pul-i-Charki prison or to a prison in Balkh province, where in either case he believes he will be under threat from Taliban and other Islamist prisoners.
Reporters and foreign human rights groups following the Kambakhsh case have described it as a travesty of justice. The State Department mentioned it in its latest Human Rights Report on Afghanistan last month. The following day, Reporters Without Borders urged President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to live up to their expressions of concern for press freedom by paying attention to cases like this one. Kambakhsh’s own brother Yaqub thinks authorities prosecuted Perwiz in retaliation for his (Yaqub’s) reporting that has been critical of local politicos and warlords.
Once Washington’s favourite Afghan, Karzai has come under increasing criticism in the U.S. capital for widespread corruption reported in his government. This would appear to be another issue that could be added to that list. At the same time, Obama has signalled he wants to take a more conciliatory approach to the Muslim world.
(Photo: Kambakhsh at appeal hearing in Kabul, 21 Oct 2008/Omar Sobhani)
Blasphemy is one of the most divisive issues between western and Muslim countries, as the Prophet Mohammad cartoon controversy showed. Will Obama’s drive to improve relations with Muslim countries mean Washington will not pressure Karzai to pardon Kambakhsh?