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Nader Rahman

“Freedom of expression shall be inviolable. Every Afghan shall have the right to express thoughts through speech, writing, illustrations as well as other means in accordance with provisions of this constitution. Every Afghan shall have the right, according to provisions of law, to print and publish on subjects without prior submission to state authorities.”
Article 34, The Constitution of Afghanistan

The Internet has become a veritable hunting ground for pseudo democratic nations looking to add to their respective national prison systems. These governments quite literally shiver at the very sound of a 21st century word, a blogger. Five years ago it was the marginalised pursuit of tech savvy geeks ranting and raving about everything except what really mattered in the world, now in some parts of the world it has become a pastime of truth, the last remaining sanctuary of free speech and expression. Stories of people being carted off around the world because of what they write on their blogs are now commonplace, from Abdel Kareem Soliman in Egypt to Hu Jia and Zeng Jinyan in China there are people around the world suffering and begging for their rights. Last week yet another high profile incident came on to the international stage, no it didn't have to do with a blogger per se but the moral and out come of the event was possibly the most shocking news about the state of freedom around the world and also importantly in Afghanistan.

Arash Bikhoda means “Godless” in Persian and that is interestingly the name of a political blogger who got caught up in a storm half way around the world from where he lives. Bikhoda is an Iranian-born student and Internet journalist who lives in Europe and writes with a more than liberal tint on many topics including religion. Some time ago from the shelter of his western home he produced a highly readable, insightful and potentially dangerous article. Without a doubt there must be at least a few hundred websites online where similar material may be found. Writing from the Iranian Diaspora on obscure websites his work was bound to be looked over and forgotten just as fast as it was written, but the interesting fact is that now, that very article is in the eye of a storm, and the writer is not languishing in jail, the amazing part is that someone who read it is. Even more shocking is fact that the person suffering in jail because of an article he downloaded is now counting down the clock as he has amazingly been handed a death sentence, and all this over one downloaded article, forget the freedom of speech and expression that the bloggers wail for, his very freedom to think has been taken from him.

The incident was covered in innumerable blogs around the world when Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh was arrested on 27 October 2007 for allegedly downloading a "blasphemous" article that was “disseminating defamatory comments about Islam”. The article in question was written by Bikhoda where he laid out his ideas that Muslim fundamentalists who claimed the Quran justified the oppression of women had misrepresented the views of the prophet. A seemingly innocuous topic to most of us and one might even say it was an article that would arouse heated discussion in some parts of the world. As it so happens that was exactly the reason behind downloading the article, 23-year-old Kambakhsh was a student at Balkh University and a reporter for the Jahan-i-Naw (New World) newspaper and he wanted to distribute the article to his classmates to encourage healthy discussion on the topic of women's rights. Things did not turn out as he planned within a few days of spreading the article amongst his friends he was warned that there would be dire consequences for his actions, a statement he should have taken more seriously because before the week was up he was arrested for disseminating defamatory comments about Islam.

Afghanistan needs someone like him

The incident may have been shocking to bloggers around the world but none of the main media houses deemed it news worthy and was thus off the mainstream news landscape. There may have been a storm brewing online but it was not strong enough to garner any support for him. What followed next was a damning confirmation of the state of freedom in Afghanistan, it was not bad enough that he was arrested unconstitutionally, but he was also speedily tried in court for the charges trumped up against him. This is where the story gets a little hazy, it has been reported that throughout the process of his trial he was not afforded a lawyer, while other reports have claimed that when he was sentenced there was no lawyer present. Whatever the exact facts may be, every news source including the United Nations has confirmed that at many a time during the trial and his sentencing he was not given a lawyer and most importantly the trial was not conducted in a free fair and impartial manner, he was guilty till proven guilty.

While a hullabaloo is being created about the circumstances surrounding the trial some far more basic aspects of the judicial process have not come under the microscope. The best example is that Kambakhsh case should have been heard by the media commission and then if necessary should have been transferred to the judicial authorities, instead his case was heard by Shura-ye-Ulema, the Council of Religious Scholars. This is yet another case of heavy handedness in a country that claims to have cleansed itself of its Taleban past, but now simply lives with the same repression under a different name. Hamid Karzai took to office with the promise of religious secularism yet he has constantly failed to live up to his promises, not even his American accent can save him from his promises, his lack of accountability bears a striking resemblance to that of his friend and partner in crime George W. Bush.

Then came January 22 and the news, which shocked the world, behind closed doors the Council of Religious Scholars, sentenced Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh to death for downloading and distributing a "blasphemous" article “disseminating defamatory comments about Islam”. Under the most amazing circumstances and with a decision against the spirit of the constitution a young man would die, simply for expressing an opinion and thinking freely, civil liberties are at stake in Afghanistan and as some might say they are as good as gone with this verdict. There were isolated scenes of jubilation around Afghanistan and for the most part the religious leaders had managed to control what the media thought of the topic. Journalists and human rights organisations around the world were up in arms, they looked to Karzai for a response, but till date he has remained mum on the topic. His refusal to deal with the issue publicly and internationally had only fed fodder to the religious hardliners; the same people who have helped him consolidate his power in a crumbling nation.

At the same time many facts have been skewered as reports out of Afghanistan have claimed that he wrote the article in question. What is interesting to note is that he may simply have been used as a pawn to pressure his brother Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi. Kambakhsh's brother is a noted journalist who recently published an article implicating an Afghan legislator in a series of killings and kidnappings. His article did not go down well with the authorities and it is thought that the charges brought against his brother were done to silence him. In defiance to the ludicrous charges Ibrahimi did not back down, like a true dedicated believer in the freedom of speech and expression he stood by all his critical stories and his brother. But that could not stop a disturbing series of events that refused to settle, soon after the first verdict was given people were looking to higher forms of authority to repel the verdict. A week after he was handed a death sentence his verdict was upheld and motion was passed confirming it all.

The furore surrounding the case had not died down and will not till it is resolved, but the pressure the international community is putting on Afghanistan and Karzai is more than likely to have the opposite of the desired effect. Karzai has increasingly distanced himself from his NATO allies by kicking out Irish and British diplomats as well as his standoffish presence at Davos, he has drifted from his international power bases to national ones which are strikingly similar to the Taleban and it is no coincidence that recently there has been an increasing amount of Tabean activity in the country. With an election looming in the near future he may just keep shutting out the west by continuing to back his religious hardliners in local government. The result of Karzai's mood swings are that civil liberties are at an all time low in the nation and there are reports of rising fundamentalism which poses a treat to the freedoms of thought, speech and the press.

Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh

Zia Bomya is chair of the Journalists' Defense Committee in Kabul and he recently said "As long as the constitution and the courts exist in Afghanistan, the Shura-ye-Ulema is not authorised to pass sentence on anyone” the government is still yet to respond to his statement. The Institute for War & Peace Reporting Afghanistan Programme Director, Jean Mackenzie also weighed in on the topic when talking to journalists last week when he said, "If this intimidation continues, it would indicate a frightening new level of attacks on freedom of speech and the media in Afghanistan.”

The situation has reached boiling point and Malalai Joya the first female Afghan MP also put her point of view in the public domain when she wrote in The Independent (UK) on Jnauary 31 "I utterly condemn this undemocratic act of those in power against Sayed Pervez Kambaksh. This situation has exposed the corruption of the government, which is inherently undemocratic, which does not believe in women's rights and which is willing to go to extreme lengths to prevent freedom of speech. Mr Kambaksh has not broken any law, but he is a "real" journalist, one who is not afraid to write articles exposing the corruption of the fundamentalists in power. This has been a bloody year for journalists in Afghanistan, and they are now in a lot of danger.

If Mr Kambaksh is killed for his "crime", then tomorrow it will be someone else. The situation that the press is faced with gives you a clear indication of the level of freedom and democracy in the country as a whole." Joya got it spot on with her comments and coming from a member of parliament it added more weight to her statements. She knows first hand what goes on in Afghanistan and is testament to the increasing fundamentalism in the country as she was suspended from the country's parliament for criticising fellow delegates. There is a very old saying that a cynic is a person who knows the price of everything and value of nothing, seemingly in Afghanistan the cynics have put a price on freedom, and that is a human life, if only they could figure out its value.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008