Imprisoned journalists released

New York, June 25, 2003—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) welcomes the release of two journalists from prison today in Afghanistan. However, CPJ remains deeply concerned about government threats to prosecute the journalists for blasphemy in connection with articles published that were critical of Islam.

Sayeed Mirhassan Mahdawi, the editor of the weekly newspaper Aftab, which is based in the capital, Kabul, and his deputy editor Ali Payam Sistany were arrested on June 17 after publishing an article entitled “Holy Fascism,” which was deemed “an offense to Islam” by Afghanistan’s Supreme Court. The court ordered the arrests of the two journalists, and banned the newspaper from further publication. [For more information, see CPJ’s June19 letter].

Afghan president Hamid Karzai said in an interview today with the BBC’s Persian Service that he had personally ordered the release of the two journalists pending their trial. Karzai defended the charges, saying, “freedom of expression must not violate the religious beliefs of the Afghan people and the national interests of the Afghan people.” He said that he had ordered an investigation into the article, and that the detention of the journalists was a necessary part of that investigation.

“While the release of Mahdawi and Sistany from prison is a positive development,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper, “until the charges against them are dropped and new laws protecting the rights of journalists to do their jobs without fear of reprisal are established, Afghanistan will continue to be a hazardous place for the media.”

The chairman of Afghanistan’s Supreme Court, Mowlawi Fazl Hadi Shinwari, told the Afghan Islamic Press news agency yesterday that a trial against the journalists would take place in accordance with Islamic law, or sharia, and that the case against them would be presented in a lower court in Kabul in the near future.