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Afghanistan: Death or just 20 years for blasphemy?

3 November 2008. A World to Win News Service. Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh is a 24-year-old Afghan university journalism student accused of showing classmates a downloaded article critical of Islam. Last October, a local court in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif sentenced him to death for blasphemy. Now a three-judge appeals court has confirmed this conviction, while reducing his sentence to 20 years in prison.

The original trial lasted four minutes. This new one was more complex. A key witness said that he had previously testified that Kambakhsh had given him the article only because the police threatened his parents. Evidence was also presented that Kambakhsh's admission of guilt had been extracted through torture. It could be considered outrageous that his conviction was upheld anyway, despite these revelations, but it should be considered far more outrageous that the latest trial examined only the evidence as to whether or not blasphemy was actually committed – whether or not Kambakhsh actively distributed the article, wrote it or agreed with it, and believes in Allah – and not whether or not blasphemy should be considered a crime. This is particularly disturbing in terms of the basis for the next step, an appeal to the Afghan Supreme Court in Kabul.

An Asia Human Rights Watch official said that the reduction of Kambakhsh's sentence to 20 years might actually work against him, in that it may reduce international pressure on Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai to step in quickly and pardon the student to save his life.

This is the Islamic justice that the U.S. occupation has maintained. Under Article 3 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, "No law can be contrary to the belief and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." The country's Ulema (council of religious scholars), the upper House of Parliament and the head of the Senate, a key Karzai ally, have urged the student's execution. Karzai has remained publicly non-committal.

Earlier this year U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is known to have expressed embarasment about the death penalty dimension of this case. (Note: She is not known to have expressed embarasment or anything else about her own government's death-dealing, such as the August air-raid slaughter of as many as 168 people, the majority of them women and children, in the village of Azizabad.) At this point, while American authorities sometimes voice genuine dissatisfaction with Karzai, they are not equipped with any immediate alternative if they want to continue dominating Afghanistan. Instead, the U.S. and its allies (especially Saudi Arabia) are working with Karzai to expand the social base of his government.

According to local correspondents for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (, this case represents a new judicial trend more than a continuation of old policies. At the least, it represents a change from earlier efforts to Westernise the judicial system. Most notably, in 2006 the courts sentenced an Afghan man to death for converting to Christianity. Bowing to pressure from Afghanistan's embarrassed foreign overlords, the government instead had him declared innocent by reason of insanity and deported him to Italy. In September of this year, a Kabul court issued 20-year sentences to a prominent journalist and a religious scholar accused of promoting a new vernacular translation of the Koran (usually read in Arabic or a word-to-word rendering).

With letting convictions such as these stand, now more than ever the Karzai regime is attempting to establish itself as the most faithful representative of religious rule. This is both part of its contest with the Taleban for that title, and, possibly, meant to help split the anti-regime fundamentalist fighters and draw some of those who have been at war with the government into its folds.
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