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Afghanistan Report: January 25, 2008

Iranian Journalist Claims Article That Led To Death Sentence

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Bikhoda cited Koranic verses that he said are discriminatory against women

His pen name says it all: Arash Bikhoda -- or "Godless," in Persian.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, that’s a dangerous name. But Bikhoda is an Iranian-born student and Internet journalist who lives in Europe. He’s also the author of "The Koranic Verses That Discriminate Against Women," a controversial article that, a world away in Afghanistan, has landed journalism student Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh on death row.

In what media reports called a secret trial, a three-judge panel in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif on January 22 sentenced Kambakhsh to death for “blasphemy.” The ruling, which highlights the tension between international human-rights law and some conservative interpretations of Islam, has been widely condemned by human-rights organizations in Afghanistan and around the world.

Kambakhsh was arrested in October after reportedly distributing the article among fellow students. Authorities apparently believed he was its author, but his brother told RFE/RL this week that Kambakhsh had copied the article off a website.

Bikhoda has confirmed to Radio Farda that it was his website -- and his article. He also expressed sadness over what has happened and appealed to the Afghan government to ensure that Kambakhsh's death sentence is not carried out.

"But from a legal and moral point of view I don’t feel responsible," Bikhoda says. "In the rules of my websites, it has been written that many people consider the articles blasphemous and that they might seem insulting. The publishing and use of these articles in Islamic countries is usually not in line with the laws in these countries, and it is also written that the articles contain the personal views of the authors."

'No Right To Arrest Him'

One chief judge from northern Afghanistan's Balkh Province says Kambakhsh confessed to the crime, and that only President Hamid Karzai can pardon him. While it remains unclear what the journalist might have told the authorities, the question of whether he penned the article appears to be vital in determining his guilt.

"If the convicted person doesn't accept that he wrote the article, and if he denies being quoted, then no court can judge his faith [according to Islamic Shari'a law]," Abdullah Attaei, an Afghan expert in Shari'a law, told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan. “When he denies that he wrote the article, then no one has the right to arrest or investigate him or even to try to prove him guilty."

In Kabul, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has expressed concern about the case against Kambakhsh.

UNAMA says cases involving religion and freedom of expression occur in many countries and require care and sensitivity in their handling. UNAMA urged a proper and complete review of this case as it goes through the appeals process. "The pressures for punishment, warnings to journalists, as well as the holding of this case in closed session without Mr. Kambakhsh having legal representation point to possible misuse of the judicial process," UNAMA says. "This would not serve the cause of justice."

Afghanistan's constitution commits it to uphold both Islamic values and universal human rights. Some see those values as compatible -- but not Bikhoda.

The journalist, who asked that his location not be identified due to security concerns, says his article tackles important issues facing the Islamic world. "In the article, [I have cited] Koranic verses that are discriminatory -- for example, the legal superiority and superiority in status of men over women, or the possibility for men to have several wives," Bikhoda says. "These kinds of issues were cited from the Koran and made clear that they are not in line with international human rights laws."

But while expressing concern over Kambakhsh's fate, Bikhoda says he is also heartened to see that Afghanistan has people brave enough to express their views -- even at great personal risk. "I am happy that people such as Kambakhsh live in Afghanistan," he says. "Now there will be more world attention on the issue of intolerance toward intellectuals in Islamic societies -- that this is how Islamists deal with those who oppose them. Instead of giving them a logical answer, out of weakness they use violence and death sentences against them."

Islamic authorities in Mazar-e Sharif defend the sentence against Kambakhsh.

In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, Balkh Province Attorney-General Hafizullah Khaliqyar said Kambakhsh had insulted Islam, misinterpreted the Koran, and distributed the article to others. He denied there had been any violation of the journalist’s rights and said the trial was held in a "very Islamic way." Khaliqyar also threatened to arrest any journalist who defended Kambakhsh.

The case is now set for the first of two appeals. Kambakhsh will remain in custody during the process.

(Golnaz Esfandiari is the director of Radio Farda. RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report)

Afghanistan: Journalist Given Death Sentence For 'Blasphemy'

Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, whose brother has written articles critical of local authorities

A 23-year-old Afghan journalist has been sentenced to death by a court in northern Afghanistan for blasphemy in connection with an article that people close to the case say he did not write.

Local and international media groups have condemned the verdict against Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, which family members say followed a "secret trial" at which Kambakhsh had no legal counsel.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), a nongovernmental group that helps train journalists in troubled spots, has meanwhile accused the authorities of prosecuting Kambakhsh in order to punish his brother, a contributor to IWPR publications.

Family members denounced the verdict, saying the January 22 trial in Mazar-e Sharif was held behind closed doors and they did not even know the hearing had been scheduled.

Kambakhsh's brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the verdict was "unjust" and his brother did not have a lawyer defending him at the hearing.

"I told [my brother], 'Don't worry about this. It is not the final decision of the Afghan courts,'" Ibrahimi says. "But, anyway, every member of our family is concerned about it. We are sorry to see this unjust decision by the Balkh court."

Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, a journalism student at Balk University who also worked for the newspaper "Jahan-e Naw" (The New World), was arrested in late October over a controversial article that commented on verses in the Koran that were about women.

Kambakhsh's brother and other sources said the article had in fact been taken off the Internet and Kambakhsh had simply distributed copies of it among fellow university students.

"We feel very strongly that this is a complete fabrication on the part of the authorities up in Mazar, designed to put pressure on Parwez's brother Yaqub, who has done some of the hardest-hitting pieces outlining abuses by some very powerful commanders in Balkh and the other northern provinces," IWPR country manager Jean MacKenzie says.

MacKenzie notes that authorities in Balkh had searched Ibrahimi's computer and taken contact details of sources, adding that "we feel that what is happening with Parwez is not a very veiled threat against Yaqub Ibrahimi."

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based media watchdog, says it was "shocked" at the verdict against Kambakhsh and has urged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to intervene.

Afghan media outlets have sprung up in large numbers since the ouster of the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001, although press freedoms frequently run up against official obstacles or opposition from conservative forces that include the clergy.

Legal Questions

A three-judge panel concluded on January 22 that the article in question violated the tenets of Islam.

Rahimullah Samandar, who heads Afghanistan's Independent Journalist Association, strongly condemned the verdict against Kambakhsh. He tells Radio Free Afghanistan that the ruling contravenes the country's 2004 constitution.

"The Afghan Independent Journalists Association, and the...the Committee to Protect Afghan Journalists..., both organizations, strongly condemn this decree," Samandar says. "This is illegal, this is unjust, it's unfair. It is in accordance with neither Afghan law nor the Afghan Constitution."

The Independent Journalists Association's Rahimullah Samandar (left) has condemned the verdict

The constitution, adopted after the ouster of the Taliban, described freedom of expression as "inviolable" within the law, and committed authorities to respecting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But it also stipulates that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."

Samandar also says President Karzai should reverse the verdict, which he says was made under the pressure of Islamic clerics.

"This was completely a decree [made] under pressure, under religious pressure, under political pressure, and we are against this, and we don't accept this," Samandar says. "We will appeal to other courts. We will appeal to the international community, to international media organizations, and also to the Afghan president, and the Afghan parliament to help us."

Balkh Justice?

Reporters Without Borders has urged Karzai to intervene in the Kambakhsh case "before it is too late."

"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 [Afghan] constitution," the group said in a statement on January 22.

In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, Balkh Province Attorney-General Hafizullah Khaliqyar defends the sentence, adding that the trial was conducted in a "very Islamic way."

"This was not a violation of human rights or press freedom, not a violation of rights of a journalist," Khaliqyar says. "[Kambakhsh] violated the values of Islam. He did not make a journalistic mistake; he insulted our religion. He misinterpreted the verses of the Koran and distributed this paper to others. All ulama [Islamic clerics] have condemned his act."

Clerics had been pushing for Kambakhsh to be punished. They reportedly organized a demonstration in Mazar-e Sharif last week against the journalist, demanding that the government not release him.

Molvi Shamas ul-Rehman Moomand, head of the Primary Provincial Appeals Court that sentenced Kambakhsh to death

Clerics have also claimed that Kambakhsh confessed to having humiliated Islam.

But Abdullah Attaei, an expert in Shari'a law who studied at Al-Azhar University in Egypt, tells Radio Free Afghanistan that the verdict does not appear to be in line with Islamic law.

"If the convicted person doesn't accept that he wrote the article, and if he denies being quoted, then no court can judge his faith [according to Shari'a law]," Attaei says. "When he denies that he wrote the article, then no one has the right to arrest or investigate him or even to try to prove him guilty."

Journalists who defended Kambakhsh came under attack from authorities on January 21. Provincial Attorney-General Khalikyar vowed at a media briefing that he would arrest any journalist who defended Kambakhsh.

The case will now go to the first of two appeals, with Kambakhsh in custody throughout the appeal procedure.

A chief judge from Balkh Province, Fazel Wahab, said only President Karzai can forgive Kambakhsh because the journalist has confessed to the crime.

Central authorities have struggled for decades to reconcile efforts to liberalize Afghanistan's media environment with counterefforts by reactionary elements that frequently cite adherence to religious teachings. A major experiment in independent media began with King Mohammad Zaher's 1964 constitution, which ushered in what is frequently referred to as the "decade of democracy," although the Soviet puppet and subsequent hard-line governments fought hard to reverse its legacy in most respects.

Karzai issued a decree setting out a new law on mass media in December 2005 -- just days before the inauguration of the country's first directly elected legislature -- but frequent disputes have arisen on how the law should be interpreted and enforced.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)

Afghanistan: 'Bamiyan' Carpet Looms Large At International Fair

By Sami Abbas

The winning "Bamiyan" carpet

HANNOVER, Germany -- Afghan weavers have had more than their share of hardship over the past three decades.

Their country has seen a Soviet invasion, followed by civil wars, a total breakdown in central authority, and the harsh rule of the Taliban, prompting millions of people to flee to neighboring states. The hardships uprooted the carpet industry and almost every other business in the process.

But since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, huge numbers of refugees have gone home, including many weavers. As they have returned, they have been able to start small businesses of their own after decades of work in obscurity abroad.

One of those returnees is Hajji Nabbi, owner of Zinnat Carpet Merchandise. An ethnic Hazara, Nabbi worked for years as a weaver in refugee camps in Pakistan with little reward. The carpets that he and other Afghans wove were labeled "Made in Pakistan," and most of the profits were taken by Pakistani middlemen who controlled access to the export markets.

But today, based in Kabul, Nabbi is among a growing number of successful merchants who are reviving the Afghan carpet trade. Employing dozens of other Hazara weavers in the capital plus Pashtun weavers in Jalalabad, his company is a rare example of a business operating on at least a partly national scale in a country still struggling for stability.

This year at Domotex, the carpeting world's premiere Western event, Nabbi's company got the international recognition for which Afghan weavers are striving.

The jury awarded Zinnat first prize for Best Modern Design in the under-100-euros-per-square-meter price range. The winning rug, dubbed "Bamiyan" style, is the first "Made in Afghanistan" carpet to reach one of the interior-design industry's center stages for many, many years.

Nabbi describes his winning sample as "a new or modern design, conceived by our skilled designers." Wool from Ghazni Province and natural dyes are used to make the carpet, he says, adding, "It took our weavers in Kabul three months to make this carpet, which now has brought pride to us and to all of Afghanistan."

The contemporary pattern attracts particular attention because so far Afghan weavers have previously tried to appeal to the export market by modifying traditional designs. Afghan weavers -- especially ethnic Turkmen and Hazara -- have had special success in recent years with a modified Indo-Persian design known as the "Chobi," as well as with variations of Caucasus rug designs known as "Kazaks."

Hajji Nabbi (center) receives the Domotex prize in Hannover, Germany

Those rugs were much in evidence among the Afghan stalls at Domotex this year, but so were increasingly contemporary looks that show a growing sophistication in anticipating Western design trends.

The handmade-carpet industry is highly competitive and, like most industries, there are international competitions that contribute to a pecking order that includes the most innovative players in the game.

Afghan producers filled much of one of the huge hangers at the Domotex fair in Hannover, Germany, on January 12-15, with 14 stands and one large tent. In a sign of the importance of the rug business to the Afghan economy, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) supported the participation of 28 Afghan carpet traders and producers in the fair.

For the first time, many Afghan women were also present among their country's purveyors.

The head of the Afghan Businesswomen's Federation, Khadija, says that coming to Europe has taught the women a lot about what European consumers want. "Our silk, 'Chobi-,' and 'Kazak'-design carpets attracted a lot of attention, but this was the first time that Afghan women have come to this kind of exhibition, and we had no idea about the demands for carpets in Europe so we brought our old and traditional designs." Khadija says. "Now that we have learned more about what designs are attractive for Westerners, we will try to bring such kinds of designs next year -- so we can attract more dealers and buyers."

In all, Afghan producers say they brought 4,000 square meters of carpets to Domotex, all of which had been sold by the end of the fair.

Former Taliban Commander Gives Advice To U.S. Ambassador

By Ron Synovitz

Afghan men in the town of Musa Qala shortly after the town was retaken by coalition troops in December

The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, William Wood, on January 13 met with Mullah Abdul Salaam, the former Taliban commander who recently defected to the side of the Afghan government and now heads the Kabul-backed administration in Musa Qala.

Wood traveled to Musa Qala with the goal of clearing the obstacles that prevent reconstruction aid from reaching the northeastern part of Helmand Province. His meeting with Salaam was meant to advance the ambassador's goal of aiding the region's transformation from a volatile Taliban stronghold into a center of peace, stability, and prosperity.

But during his meeting with Salaam, Wood wasn't doing all of the talking. The U.S. ambassador also got advice from Salaam about what the United States and Kabul can do to reduce popular support for the Taliban.

The former Taliban commander's advice included references to Shari'a law and its warnings about government corruption and cronyism, which, he says, prevent government aid from reaching his community.

Salaam also said as many as half of the people in his district are addicted to opium. And he said farmers in the area need help to grow alternative crops because they have become economically dependent on opium-poppy cultivation.

Strategic Site

Salaam, a powerful local commander who has brought some 300 militia fighters to the side of the Afghan government in northeastern Helmand Province, even gave the U.S. ambassador tactical advice on how to prevent the Taliban from attacking the strategic Kajaki hydroelectric dam, which is about 25 kilometers from Musa Qala.

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on the sidelines of the talks, Salaam said the international community must understand that residents of Musa Qala blame British forces for allowing the Taliban to seize their town in February 2007.

He says that is because of a deal brokered by the British in 2006 under which local militia fighters were disarmed and then expected to prevent the Taliban from moving back into the area.

"For the people to realize that these [NATO] troops have come to rebuild Musa Qala, the people must be convinced that they will not be abandoned, as they were in the past when the foreigners delivered us to the terrorists -- which was not the fault of the people and the elders," Salaam said. "The international community is to be blamed for that. They disarmed the people and the elders. Then the Taliban came and took over."

Salaam also told RFE/RL that it is crucial for a new turbine to be installed at the Kajaki hydroelectric dam and for power to start being distributed to Afghan homes and businesses so that residents see improvements in their living conditions.

"The people will take advantage of the new situation if they are reassured that Musa Qala will not be abandoned again -- if Musa Qala is rebuilt, if Musa Qala becomes stable, and if the people of Musa Qala are taken care of," Salaam said. "The people want this area to be made into its own province. If the Kajaki Dam is rebuilt, it will be a source of livelihood for the whole of the country as well as the two districts [in Helmand Province, Musa Qala and Kajaki.] So if this work is done, the people will trust the government more. Governments earn trust as a result of their actions."

From Taliban To Government

Salaam was once the Taliban's governor in the southern Afghan province of Oruzgan -- birthplace of Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, as well as Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

By siding with the Kabul government in December, Salaam has helped extend the central government's authority into an area previously seen as a bastion of popular support for the Taliban.

But Salaam warns that reconstruction funds from the Afghan government are not being forwarded to Musa Qala by Helmand's provincial administration in the town of Lashkar Gah. He also says his requests for the Afghan Interior Ministry to send an additional 200 police officers to Musa Qala have so far fallen on deaf ears.

As a result, he says the only reconstruction work being done in Musa Qala has been by the U.S. military's so-called provincial reconstruction team.

Salaam says that has led residents of Musa Qala and nearby Kajaki to demand that their districts break away from Helmand's provincial administration in Lashkar Gah to create a new Afghan province.

Eyes On Musa Qala

For his part, the U.S. ambassador promised Salaam that more U.S. aid would come to the people in the northeastern part of Helmand Province.

"You can count on the support of the United States," Wood said. "We are already working with others to provide furnishings for your school. We are already supporting other development projects relating to agriculture, relating to health, relating to the paving of roads, and other things."

"We believe it is very important that the community of Musa Qala come together to decide what your priorities are so that we can help you fulfill them," Wood continued. "It is the people of Musa Qala who know what Musa Qala wants and needs. And we want to hear their voices."

But Wood told Salaam that residents of Musa Qala also need to help Afghan and NATO-led security forces so that Taliban attacks are unable to thwart reconstruction efforts.

"The eyes of the world will be on Musa Qala. And whatever happens here will be known. And we want the eyes of the world and the eyes of Afghanistan to see success, to see peace, to see reconciliation, to see health, to see education, and to see good governance," Wood said. "We want to see the voice of the people of Musa Qala represented in the government of Lashkar Gah and the government of Kabul through [Salaam's] voice. And we want to see the government of Kabul and the government of Lashkar Gah represented in Musa Qala through [Salaam's] voice."

Salaam said there are two types of Taliban in Helmand: Afghan nationals who he described as as "true Afghan mullahs," and foreign Taliban. He told Wood it is possible to separate Afghan and foreign Taliban fighters because Afghans are unwilling to destroy their own country.

Salaam said he expects his appointment as district chief in Musa Qala to foster reconciliation between the Kabul government and other moderate Taliban members. And he said some moderate Afghan Taliban already are talking to him about the possibility of backing Karzai's government -- but he added that it would be premature to announce any fresh wave of Taliban defections.

Wood told Salaam that the U.S. government would welcome all Taliban who respect the Afghan Constitution, lay down their weapons, and decide to join in a peaceful reconciliation process.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ahmad Zubair Zhman contributed to this story from Musa Qala.)