Afghanistan: Journalist On Death Row Gives First Interview
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
February 26, 2008
A 23-year-old Afghan journalism student — sentenced to death for printing and handing out an Internet article that questioned interpretations of the role of women in Islam — says he was not allowed to have a lawyer nor to speak in his own defense during his four-minute trial.
Sayed Pervez Kambakhsh made the remarks from prison in Mazar-e Sharif in an interview with the British daily “The Independent” on February 25 — his first interview since being jailed four months ago.
Kambakhsh told the newspaper that local judges in the northern province of Balkh had already decided the case before the trial had begun.
Kambakhsh told “The Independent: “The way [the judges] talked to me, looked at me, was the way they look at a condemned man. I wanted to say: ‘This is wrong. Please listen to me.’ But I was not given a chance to explain.”
Balk Province Attorney-General Qazi Hafizullah Khaliqyar denies the claims by Kambakhsh that he did not receive a fair trial, saying Afghan law is being followed and that the journalism student had chosen not to have an attorney represent him in court.
“Of course we didn’t intend to violate any rights of journalists. The media law clearly prohibits insulting religious values and beliefs. [Journalists] can’t violate the values of Islam and they have to keep that in mind,” Khaliqyar says. Kambakhsh “has been referred to an Islamic court and would be dealt with according to Shari’a law. He has been asked if he wanted any lawyer, but he rejected the opportunity and preferred to defend himself.”
Local judges in the case ruled that the article published by Kambakhsh was blasphemous because it questioned some basic tenets of Islam — including those related to the role of women in an Islamic society.
Kambakhsh says he did not write the article that led to the charges. Rather, he says he printed it out from the Internet and distributed it among his fellow students in order to stimulate debate about women’s rights in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL has confirmed that the author of the article is an Iranian expatriate who lives in Germany.
The court informed Kambakhsh during his trial that other Afghan journalism students had accused him of writing the article. Kambakhsh says he was never told the names of those accusers nor given an opportunity to cross-examine them.
One chief judge from northern Afghanistan also has said that Kambakhsh had confessed, and that only President Hamid Karzai can pardon him.
Meanwhile, legal experts continue to debate the merits of the case.
Abdullah Attaei, an Afghan expert in Shari’a law, says the question of whether Kambakhsh penned the article himself is a vital issue.
“If the convicted person doesn’t admit that he wrote the article, and if he denies being quoted, then no court can judge his faith [according to Islamic Shari’a law]. When he denies that he wrote the article, then no one has the right to arrest or investigate him or even to try to prove him guilty,” Attaei says.
Kambakhsh says he was entitled under the Afghan Constitution to have a laywer and to speak in his own defense. He says that if he is allowed to put over his point of view to an appeals court, the judges will see that he has done nothing wrong.
He told “The Independent” that he was “totally shocked” by the death sentence. He also said he hopes his appeal will be heard by a court in Kabul because he thinks he has a better chance to get a fair trial in the Afghan capital.
Kambakhsh says he has heard that President Karzai has taken an interest in the case. He says that even if the conviction is upheld, he hopes Karzai will issue a reprieve. But he says he does not know what kind of political pressure Karzai faces over the case.
The death sentence has raised an outcry from international and Afghan media rights groups as well as the United Nations and several foreign governments.
Karzai has suggested that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband are among the foreign officials who have raised the issue of a possible presidential reprieve.
“Both the [U.S.] secretary of state and the [British] foreign secretary spoke to me about this. This is an issue that our judicial system is handling. But I can assure you that [in the end], justice will be done in the right way,” Karzai says.
But Kambakhsh’s fate remains an issue of heated debate within Afghanistan, where some fundamentalists are still calling for his execution.
A key ally of Karzai and head of the Afghan Senate, Sibghatullkah Mojeddeid, issued a statement supporting the death sentence against Kambakhsh. But that statement was withdrawn after domestic and international protests.
(RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan and Radio Farda contributed to this report.)