Afghan journalist’s appeal delayed over torture investigation

New York, June 2, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned today about a further delay in the appeal of Afghan journalist Parwez Kambakhsh. Kambakhsh is appealing a death sentence for blasphemy in a Kabul court.

The appeal was delayed on Sunday pending medical corroboration of Kambakhsh’s allegation that he was tortured in prison, according to his brother, Yaqub Ibrahimi. Kambakhsh will have his left hand and his nose examined for evidence of injuries he says were inflicted by security officials during an interrogation within the first eight days of his detention last October, Ibrahimi told CPJ today.

“We welcome the investigation into Parwez Kambakhsh’s allegations of torture, and we call on the court to expedite an independent medical exam,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “This case has faced a series of administrative hurdles. Every delay in his release does discredit to the Afghan legal system.”

Ibrahimi was ambivalent about the delay. “We cannot say that it’s good news,” he said. “There was no chance to explain earlier, so it was a good chance to show publicly [that he had been tortured]. But delaying the trial is not a good thing for us. Every day in jail he loses weight, and he is not in a normal psychological state.” 

Kambakhsh, a Balkh University journalism student who wrote for a local paper, was arrested by National Directorate of Security (NDS) officials in Mazar-i-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, on October 27, 2007. He is accused of anti-Islamic activities, which include editing and distributing an online article that critiques the role of women in Islam, and making irreligious comments in class. Kambakhsh denies all charges. He says he is a devout Muslim and was coerced into signing a confession, according to The Associated Press.

His brother, Ibrahimi, is a journalist with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). He says NDS police were investigating his records for sources at the time of his brother’s arrest. The institute and local journalists have told CPJ they believe the blasphemy charge against the younger, less well-known Kambakhsh was intended to pressure Ibrahimi to stop reporting on highly sensitive political issues in Afghanistan’s northern provinces.

Speaking by telephone from Kabul, Ibrahimi said that injuries sustained by his brother during questioning were still visible as scars on his left hand. “Any ordinary person can look at his hand and see that it is not as usual,” he said.

The article Kambakhsh is accused of distributing was read in court on Sunday, but there was no chance before the adjournment to read a defense statement the court had asked the lawyer to prepare, according to an article by Jean MacKenzie, who heads the IWPR in Afghanistan. Kambakhsh’s supporters fear that the appeal hearings reinforce an impression of the defendant’s guilt because the case for the prosecution gains credence with each restatement.

By contrast, the defense has been consistently thwarted by bureaucratic holdups:

  • Kambakhsh did not have a lawyer when he was sentenced to death on January 22 in a closed-door trial by a lower provincial court acting on the recommendation of local clerics.
  • Transferring the case in hope of a more neutral appeal court in Kabul took weeks, and several lawyers who were approached to defend him were reluctant to get involved.
  • In the first May 18 appellate hearing, Kambakhsh was allowed to make a statement, but had not appointed a defense lawyer because he had not yet received the necessary documents from the court.
  • The lawyer who accepted the case, Mohammad Afzil Nuristani, was not given further documents in time to allow him to prepare the defense statement before the second hearing on May 25. The hearing was deferred when Kambakhsh pleaded ill health, according to Dr. Samay Hamed, an independent writer and vocal advocate for Kambakhsh.
  • Ibrahimi said that Nuristani has been threatened by telephone since he agreed to defend his brother.   

The hearing will resume when the medical exam’s results have been received by the court.