Afghan journalism student facing death over alleged Islam insult says he was tortured

KABUL, Afghanistan: An Afghan journalism student sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam told an appeals court Sunday he confessed to writing materials that questioned the religion’s treatment of women because he was tortured. He denied all charges against him.

During a packed hour-long hearing, a judge read a transcript of the proceedings against 24-year-old Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh on Jan. 22 at a lower court in northern Balkh province.

It was the first time that full details have been revealed of the closed-door trial, which reflected the influence of conservative religious attitudes in post-Taliban Afghanistan’s nascent justice system. The verdict sparked an international outcry.

Kambakhsh was studying journalism at Balkh University in Mazar-i-Sharif and writing for local newspapers when he was arrested Oct. 27.

The transcript said he disrupted his university classes by asking questions about women’s rights under Islam. It also said he distributed an article on the subject and wrote an additional three paragraphs for the piece.

The only people with him in the courtroom during the January hearing in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif were three judges, a court scribe and the prosecutor. Kambakhsh said he had no defense lawyer, and only three minutes to defend himself.

He was transferred to Pul-e Charkhi prison on March 27, and his case was moved to Kabul, where rights groups believed he would have a fair trial.

On Sunday, Kambakhsh spoke in the appeals court in Kabul, again without a defense lawyer.

“I’m Muslim, and I would never let myself write such an article. All these accusations are nonsense,” he said, standing before the judge and addressing the court through a microphone in an emotional 15-minute statement.

“These accusations come from two professors and other students because of private hostilities against me. I was tortured by the intelligence service in Balkh province, and they made me confess that I wrote three paragraphs in this article.”

He did not give any further details about the alleged torture.

Saied Ansari, spokesman for the intelligence service, said it had not received any official information on Kambakhsh’s allegations and declined comment.

According to the Balkh court proceedings, the prosecutor said Kambakhsh admitted writing three paragraphs of the article and had initialed them.

He also was accused of writing, “This is the real face of Islam. … The Prophet Muhammad wrote verses of the holy Quran just for his own benefit.”

Prosecutor Ahmad Khan Ayar told the appeals court that the primary court sentence was “the right decision” according to Islamic law and the Afghan Constitution.

“Kambakhsh has insulted Islam by writing these paragraphs, and he has insulted the Prophet Muhammad,” Ayar said. “I ask the appeals court today to uphold the decision of the primary court of Balkh and sentence him to death.”

A number of rights groups have demanded that the case be annulled and Kambakhsh set free. A U.S. State Department spokesman expressed concern that Kambakhsh was sentenced to death for “basically practicing his profession.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it was concerned that Kambakhsh may have been targeted because his brother, Yaqub Ibrahimi, had written about human rights violations and local politics.

Ibrahimi said the family approached more than 10 lawyers who were initially willing to take on the case but later changed their minds.

A week after Kambakhsh was sentenced, lawmakers in the upper house of Parliament lauded the verdict. Conservative clerics and tribal elders have demanded that the government support the court’s decision.

More than 150 people — including several Western observers and more than 20 journalists — filled the courtroom Sunday to view the proceedings.

Kambakhsh said he did not believe he needed a defense lawyer for his appeal because he had not done anything wrong, but when pressed by the judges on the matter he said he would like to have one.

The head of the three-judge panel, Abdul Salaam Qazizada, adjourned the trial until next Sunday to allow Kambakhsh to meet a lawyer and prepare a written defense.

Afghan media have flourished since the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime following a U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Newspapers and TV and radio stations have opened nationwide.

But journalists face violence for news stories that criticize government leaders, warlords and religious clerics or challenge their often authoritarian views.

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Non-Muslims To Lose Citizenship Under New Constitution

Information minister Mohamed Nasheed has admitted on his personal blog that Maldivians who convert away from Islam, or who are children of Maldivians married to non-Muslims, risk losing their citizenship of the country under the constitution in progress.

The issue is believed to have been raised with government by international diplomats visiting Maldives during the development of the constitution.

A prominent lawyer who wished to remain anonymous told Minivan News the clause was “not practical” and would “formally introduce asylum seekers from the Maldives”, doing “more harm than good in the international community”.

He also acknowledged “practical” issues with the clause, saying it would be difficult to implement.

But Nasheed says a last-minute change is unlikely, because “it will be very difficult for Maldives mentality to accept Maldives citizens may belong to a different faith…No Maldives leader would want to rock the boat.”

The anonymous lawyer agreed public pressure was likely to prevent parliamentarians from opposing the clause.

The constitution has still not been finalised, and the attorney general’s office (AGO) has now raised over 200 issues of consistency, wording and practicality, to be addressed by the constitutional drafting committee and Special Majlis (constitutional assembly) before ratification. However the citizenship question does not appear on the list.

And presidential candidates were reluctant to adopt a position on the issue ahead of the country’s first multi-party presidential elections, expected once the constitution comes into force.

Former attorney general Dr Hassan Saeed, now standing as an independent candidate, said the issue was of “very little relevance” as “we do not have a non-Muslim population”.

Mohamed Nasheed (Anni), contesting on the largest opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) ticket, said the MDP “can’t have a position outside the constitution”.

However another candidate, Umar Naseer of the Islamic Democratic Party (IDP), said to local newspaper Miadhu: “In my government there would be no chance [of] any other religion.”

And Sheikh Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari, head of the religious Adhaalath party scholars’ council, told Minivan News in a May 13 interview he personally supported the tightening of citizenship regulation.

Citizenship is dealt with in the existing constitution, in force since 1998, in clause 5, which reads as follows: “Persons mentioned herein below shall be citizens of the Maldives: (a) every person who is a citizen of the Maldives at the commencement of this Constitution; (b) every child born to a citizen of the Maldives; and (c) every foreigner who, in accordance with the law, becomes a citizen of the Maldives.”

But the constitution in progress adds additional subclauses which specify (in unofficial translation) that “citizenship cannot be wrested away from a citizen of the Maldives”, “Any person who wishes to relinquish his citizenship may do so in accordance with law,” and “despite [earlier] provisions…a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

Despite the wording specifying citizenship cannot be “wrested away”, lawyers and government interpret the clause as removing citizenship from those who leave Islam or are children of non-Muslims.

“No Maldives politician would want to take the case up,” said Nasheed on his blog. Yet, he contends, “they all would privately agree that citizenship of the country he is born in, or his parents belong to, is…a human right.”

The anonymous lawyer said that because parliament is televised and “they [MPs] want to get re-elected”, a change through parliament was unlikely, but also said it would be “difficult” to reduce the impact of the clause through legislation.