January 23rd, 2008 08:21 EST
Afghan reporter sentenced to death for 'blasphemy': court
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (AFP) - Media rights groups called on Afghanistan's president to intervene Wednesday after a court sentenced to death a young journalist who distributed articles said to insult Islam.
The primary court in the northern province of Balkh delivered the sentence on Perwiz Kambakhsh, 23, Tuesday after he was arrested nearly three months ago for distributing at his university material downloaded from the Internet.
"Based on the crimes Perwiz Kambakhsh committed, the primary court yesterday sentenced him to the most serious punishment which is the death penalty," Balkh province deputy attorney general Hafizullah Khaliqyar told AFP.
Kambakhsh, a reporter for a city newspaper called Jahan-e Naw ("The New World") and a journalism student at Balkh University, indicated he did not accept the verdict and would appeal, his family said.
Afghan and international media groups called on President Hamid Karzai to step in.
"This is unfair, this is illegal," said Rahimullah Samander, president of the Afghan Independent Journalists' Association (AIJA).
The reporter had had no legal representation and the media were unaware of the trial, he told AFP. The matter should also have been referred to a national media violations commission for adjudication, he said.
AIJA had appealed to Karzai, parliament and the national attorney general to intervene and was also rallying support from international rights groups, he said.
"This is too big for a small mistake -- he just printed a copy and looked at this and read it. How can we believe in this 'democracy' if we can't even read, we can't even study?"
Afghanistan's media has blossomed since the 2001 ouster of the extremist Taliban regime which stifled the media and handed out harsh punishments, including death, for violations of a strict code of Islamic behaviour.
The post-Taliban constitution is based on Islamic Sharia law but also promotes democracy and rights, including the freedom of expression.
Another journalist, Ghows Zalmai, was also arrested three months ago on charges of distributing a translation of the Koran that clerics did not accept. Religious scholars have also called for his death.
Global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists demanded Kambakhsh's sentence -- which still has to be approved by higher courts -- be overturned.
"We are deeply shocked by this trial, carried out in haste and without any concern for the law or for free expression, which is protected by the constitution," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.
"Kambakhsh did not do anything to justify his being detained or being given this sentence. We appeal to President Hamid Karzai to intervene before it is too late."
The court's decision "impedes the achievement of genuine democracy and due process in Afghanistan," International Federation of Journalists Asia-Pacific director Jacqueline Park said.
The AIJA said the articles Kambakhsh downloaded came from sites including an Iranian blog, www.roxaneh.blogfa.com which includes articles questioning the origin of the Koran and its statements about women, among other issues.
Authorities in the town had warned journalists against reporting on the matter, the media rights group said.
Khaliqyar, the deputy provincial attorney general, threatened at a media briefing Monday to arrest journalists who "support" Kambakhsh.
The head of the court that passed down the sentence, Shamsurahman Momand, meanwhile defended the decision Wednesday saying the reporter had been found to be "insulting Islam and Prophet Mohammad."
Twenty university students had handed in written statements that confirmed he had distributed material "insulting Islam and Koranic verses," he said.