Trial and error: the case of Perwiz Kambakhsh

It’s almost a blast from the past with the Independent front-paging a powerful human rights story – but this one certainly deserves to be highlighted.

Perwiz Kambakhsh, the 23-year-old student journalist from Afghanistan who was originally sentenced to death for blasphemy (reduced to “only” 20 years in jail last year), has had this entirely objectionable sentence upheld this week.

Twenty years, then, for “offending Islam” – in this case apparently doing no more than downloading material from the internet that questioned the condition of women in Islam, adding some commentary and distributing it at Balkh University. In most parts of the world I think this is known as “democracy”, “civil society”, “women’s studies” or “being a journalist”.

The Hastings Humanists report the case and question the notion of “blasphemy” outright, but I don’t think you need to be a committed atheist/humanist to object to this sentence.  The Reuters blog FaithWorld is also worth a read, not least because it has a comment, apparently from an Afghani, saying “Afghan people really need free press”. Agreed (see below).

So, if it’s a disgraceful sentence in its own right (which it is), it also transpires that the manner of its “administration” was laughably unfair and opaque. We at Amnesty learnt on Monday that Afghanistan’s Supreme Court had – as long before as 11 February – secretly upheld the 20-year sentence without Kambakhsh’s lawyer, Mohammad Afzal Nooristani, even being present at the court hearing! (Talk about “in absentia” rulings).

And get this: Nooristani says that he only heard about the judgment by chance anyway, as he’d gone to the court on Saturday (7 March) to try to deliver his defence statement.  He was refused, told it was all over and the appeal had been upheld in favour of the 20-year sentence staying in place. Too call this a farce might be a unfair to farces …

Not surprisingly, Amnesty’s calling for President Karzai to use his power to pardon Kambakhsh – and we’re also urging the Afghan authorities to start protecting journalists properly.

And it’s not as if Afghanistan doesn’t need decent, independent journalists. See, for example, a recent post from me about violent and basically unaccountable US-led house raids. Without a free media I’d say it’s almost impossible to imagine issues like these being properly reported on in Afghanistan and people ever being held accountable.

Final point: just the other day I was doing a quick interview with a student from the international journalism MA course at City University in London. As I know from chatting to this particular Italian guy Stefano (probably about the same age as Perwiz), the biggest “risk” most student journalists in the UK face is phoning up NGO press offices and being told they’re too busy to give them an interview (which is often true!). They don’t – quite rightly – think they’re risking a 20-year jail sentence for doing what they do.

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