An Afghan journalist who printed a translation of the Koran in a Persian dialect is on trial for blasphemy and could face the death penalty if convicted. But with threats from various powerful groups, he could face the same fate even if acquitted.

Ghaws Zalmay was arrested last November trying to flee to Pakistan after Afghanistan’s Senate backed a group of powerful Sunni clerics who were calling for his arrest. He was scheduled to have a third hearing in a Kabul court on Wednesday.

Zalmay, who was a spokesman for the Attorney General and head of Afghanistan's Journalists' Union at the time of his arrest, was charged with 13 counts of blasphemy. He is accused of having "written his own Koran" in Dari, one of Afghanistan's official languages. His two brothers and a friend were imprisoned, too, charged with helping him flee.

Following Zalmay's arrest, there were demonstrations and calls for his death, including from former Prime Minister Ahmadshah Ahmadzai, a warlord and opponent to President Hamid Karzai in the 2004 presidential elections.

Now, as Afghanistan struggles with its nascent judicial system, Zalmay’s case — and others like his — are putting the country’s experiment with democracy to the test.

Most disputes and cases in Afghanistan are settled by tribal councils or by the arbitration of village elders.

"Only 20 percent of cases go to courts," said Fahim Hakim, deputy chairman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "This indicates that people don’t trust the courts and the judicial system."

Faced with sensitive charges and strong disapproval from powerful groups, Zalmay didn’t have a lawyer to represent him at his arraignment and went defenseless for three months before an attorney named Abdulqawi Afzali took his case.

"Defending him sort of meant that the lawyer was approving of the charges, so no one wanted to do it," Afzali said in an exclusive interview with

Afzali is from Legal Aid Organization of Afghanistan, a nongovernmental group that provides legal assistance to Afghans. Upon taking up Zalmay’s defense, Afzali first secured the freedom of the suspect's two brothers and friend.

Then he began fighting the bigger battle, disputing the charges against Zalmay. Among other things, he must prove that Zalmay didn’t claim to be a prophet — a charge that almost certainly would bring the death penalty.

But the strongest charge, Afzali said, is that of intentionally trying to harm Islam by promoting wrong interpretations of Islamic views on homosexuality, alcohol and begging, among other things.

According to Afzali, Zalmay didn’t translate the Koran; he merely published a translation by someone else — Ghodratolla Bakhtiyarinejad, an Iranian-born Shiite cleric said to be living in the United States. Because of this, Afzali said, he is confident his client will fend off charges.

Cases in primary courts are normally required to finish within two months, but Zalmay’s case has dragged on for eight. Affairs became complicated when, about a month ago, authorities arrested Qari Mushtaq, a mullah, for endorsing the translation. Mushtaq was also referred to the same court, and was given a month’s time to prepare his defense.

With Zalmay, Mushtaq and the owner of the publishing house all facing separate charges in conjunction with the same case, adjudication is expected to drag on even longer. When Afzali asked Zalmay if he wanted to lodge a petition of objection against the delay, Zalmay refused. His client, Afzali explained, has received too much media attention because he was a journalist and TV personality.

And so even as the Afghan Senate has now softened its stance and asked the clerics to reconsider their call for Zalmay’s death, things have not improved much. There have been numerous threats from various Afghans — some high-profile warlords, some powerful clerics — against Zalmay’s freedom.

Even though another journalist accused of blasphemy was sentenced to death just a few weeks ago, Afzali is positive about Zalmay's chances. So far, he said, the case has been fair and the trial has been open to the media. His greatest worry is what may happen to Zalmay if he is acquitted.

"If the court acquits Zalmay, his life is in danger outside the prison," Afzali said. The judge, who is aware of the risks Zalmay faces in the event of a possible acquittal, is also feeling the weight of the situation. "The judge knows about the dangers, so he is concerned too."