Journalism student given 20-year jail term in Afghanistan

New York, October 21, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists is outraged by a Kabul appeal court’s decision to sentence Afghan journalism student Parwez Kambakhsh to 20 years in prison for blasphemy today.

A three-judge panel commuted the death sentence given to Kambakhsh in January, but upheld the original conviction, according to Kambakhsh’s brother and lawyer.

Mohammad Afzal Nooristani, Kambakhsh’s lawyer, told CPJ he plans to appeal the decision with the Supreme Court tomorrow. The court has five months to consider the verdict, according to the country’s criminal law, he said.

“This sentence is a step backwards for freedom of expression Afghanistan,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Kambakhsh’s case has come to represent the distance between the traditional forces in Afghanistan and those that want their country to move forward. We call on the Supreme Court to overturn this sentence and release Parwez Kambakhsh so that he can pursue his studies and his work as a journalist.”

National Directorate of Security officials arrested Kambakhsh in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Balkh province on October 27, 2007, saying he had distributed an article from the Internet about women’s rights in Islam. On January 22, a closed court sentenced the 24-year-old Balkh University student to death on the recommendation of local clerics. He was denied legal representation during that trial, which lasted just a few minutes.

Today’s hearing had been delayed beyond the legal time limit for an appellate ruling because the court was waiting for witnesses from Balkh to testify against the defendant, according to Nooristani, who was appointed as Kambakhsh’s lawyer after his first appeal in May.

One of the witnesses called by the prosecution, a classmate of Kambakhsh’s named Hamid, told the court that NDS officials had visited him a few days after Kambakhsh’s initial arrest and threatened to take his family into custody if he did not make a statement about Kambakhsh’s blasphemy. “He was their prime witness, no other was eligible to give testimony,” Nooristani told CPJ.

This was not the first sign that security officials manipulated the case. In an earlier appeal hearing, Kambakhsh said that NDS officials had tortured him into confessing apostasy, or the rejection of Islam, but the results of a medical exam seven months later were inconclusive in proving torture, Nooristani said. Yaqub Ibrahimi, Kambakhsh’s brother, also told CPJ that NDS officials searched the apartment he shared with his brother for materials related to his own journalism. Ibrahimi writes for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting and said he feared that his brother’s arrest was in reprisal for his own hard-hitting articles. Kambakhsh also worked part-time for a local newspaper.

The Associated Press said there were five witnesses in total for the prosecution. One, a professor, said Kambakhsh had asked questions about women’s rights and Islam during classes, according to Ibrahimi, who attended the three-hour trial. Nooristani said he challenged this testimony because it was not related to the charge involving the article. The lawyer told CPJ he was not given a chance to make a closing argument.

Ibrahimi told CPJ today that he was only able to talk to his brother for a few seconds after the sentencing. “He was really shocked. He expected his release today but this was a very strong decision against him,” he said.