Afghan journalist begins death penalty appeal

New York, May 19, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes an appellate hearing Sunday in the blasphemy conviction of imprisoned journalism student Parwez Kambakhsh in Afghanistan. Kambakhsh, sentenced by a trial court to death, is asking an appeals panel to overturn his conviction.

Kambakhsh’s brother, Yaqub Ibrahimi, who attended the hearing before a three-judge panel in Kabul, described the proceedings in a telephone interview with CPJ today. “They gave him a short time to say something. It was good—the first time in over six months he has been able to say something publicly to reject the accusations,” he said.

“We welcome Sunday’s appeal hearing as a step toward a fair and transparent legal process for Parwez Kambakhsh,” said CPJ’s Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz. “The blasphemy charge should never have been brought and we call on the appeal judges to exonerate him, according to the law of Afghanistan.”

The Balkh University journalism student and reporter for local daily Jahan-e-Naw was arrested on October 27, 2007, and later convicted on blasphemy charges for insulting Islam. He was accused of distributing an online anti-Islamic article to which he had added three paragraphs, and disrupting class with questions about women’s rights, according to The Associated Press. The AP reported that in his statement in court on Sunday, Kambakhsh said he believes the charges, which he denies, were motivated by personal grudges at his university.

An outspoken journalist, Ibrahimi, 26, says he was interrogated by security officials and threatened by gunmen before Kambakhsh’s arrest, after reporting repeatedly on human rights violations by local political figures in northern Afghanistan. He said he believes Kambakhsh was accused of blasphemy to pressure him to cease investigative journalism.

Ibrahimi compared Sunday’s appeal favorably to Kambakhsh’s closed-door trial for blasphemy in a provincial Balkh court in northern Afghanistan on January 22. The difference, he said, was that this time there were international observers and local and international journalists inside the court. “It’s still not clear what will happen,” Ibrahimi said. “But having [these observers] will help. They wanted to make it more open.” 

There was no defense lawyer present at Sunday’s hearing, which was held to review the charges and submit the case files to Kambakhsh, who must provide a written statement before the hearing proceeds on May 25.

Many news outlets reported that the 23-year-old student had no lawyer. But Samay Hamed, an independent Afghan writer and former CPJ award winner who has been coordinating the defense on Kambakhsh’s behalf, told CPJ today that the Legal Aid Organization of Afghanistan had accepted the high-profile case.

Some lawyers who had initially accepted the job backed out because of the pressure surrounding blasphemy cases in Afghanistan, Ibrahimi said. “We can now say that we have a lawyer,” he told CPJ. “It was really difficult. We talked to several lawyers. We’ve tried and tried and tried,” he said.

Kambakhsh has been held in better conditions since he was moved from Balkh to the capital several weeks ago, Ibrahimi reported. But Kambakhsh remained “very concerned” about the outcome of his case, Ibrahimi said.