An Afghan journalist sentenced to death for distributing an article that allegedly violated Islam is actually being punished for reporting by his brother about abuses by northern warlords, a media group said Wednesday.

Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh, 23, was sentenced to death Tuesday by a three-judge panel in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif for distributing a report he printed off the Internet to fellow journalism students at Balkh University.

The judges said the article humiliated Islam, and members of a clerics council had pushed for Kaambakhsh to be punished.

The case now goes to the first of two appeals courts. Jean MacKenzie, country director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which helps train Afghan journalists, said Kaambakhsh is being punished for stories written for IWPR by his brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi.

"We feel very strongly that this is a complete fabrication on the part of the authorities up in Mazar, designed to put pressure on Parwez' brother Yaqub, who has done some of the hardest-hitting pieces outlining abuses by some very powerful commanders in Balkh and the other northern provinces," MacKenzie said.

The media industry has exploded in recent years in Afghanistan, which now has dozens of newspapers and TV news channels. But journalists are routinely pressured by government officials or powerful factional leaders trying to prevent reporting on sensitive issues.

MacKenzie said authorities in Balkh province searched Ibrahimi's computer hard drive and took the names and phone numbers of sources he spoke with for stories. "So we feel that what is happening with Parwez is not a very veiled threat against Yaqub Ibrahimi," MacKenzie said.

He said Yaqub Ibrahimi doesn't stay at his home at night out of safety concerns, but that he is not in hiding during the day.

Ibrahimi wrote stories for IWPR late last year quoting villagers accusing Afghan lawmaker Piram Qul of being behind murders and kidnappings. Qul — a former commander in the militant and political group Jamiat-e-Islami and a current parliament member from Takhar province — denied the allegations.

Qayoum Baabak, editor of the Jahan-e-Naw newspaper in Mazar, where Kaambakhsh works, said the local prosecutor, Hafiz Khaliqyar, warned journalists at a recent news conference that they would be punished if they supported Kaambakhsh.

Reporters Without Borders called on President Hamid Karzai to intervene. The International Federation of Journalists denounced the holding of the trial in a closed session and Kaambakhsh's lack of a lawyer.

The contents of the article circulated by Kaambakhsh were not immediately available.

Muslim clerics in Balkh and Kunduz province arranged a demonstration in Mazar-i-Sharif last week against Kaambakhsh, calling on the government not to release him.