Afghan Journalist Charged With Insulting Islam Appeals Death Sentence

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An Afghan journalism student sentenced to death for insulting Islam denied the charges before an appeals court Sunday, saying he only confessed to questioning the religion's treatment of women because he was tortured.

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

It was the first time the public and the media heard full details from the closed-door trial, which highlights the influence of conservative religious attitudes in post-Taliban Afghanistan's still-nascent justice system.

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 Kambakhsh disrupted classes at the university by asking questions about women's rights under Islam. It also said he distributed an article about the subject and wrote an additional three paragraphs for the piece.

The only people with him in the courtroom 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 human rights groups believed he would have a fair trial.

On Sunday, Kambakhsh spoke in the 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 during 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."

According to the transcript from the Balkh court proceedings, the prosecutor said Kambakhsh admitted to 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 Mohammad 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 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 at the appeals level because he had not done anything wrong, but pressed further 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 with 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.