Afghan authorities have arrested a newspaper’s owner and editor on charges of blasphemy, a move that poses an early test for new President Ashraf Ghani as he seeks to balance international demands for free speech with calls in powerful religious circles for severe punishment.
Ghani, a Western-educated technocrat, has gone to great lengths to court religious leaders by downplaying his foreign pedigree. But he has also called free speech protections a priority, recently allowing a U.S. journalist expelled by his predecessor to return to Afghanistan.
The owner and the editor in chief of the “Afghanistan Press Daily,” an English-language newspaper based in Kabul, were arrested October 24, according to a government official close to the case who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity. Their names have not been made public.
The newspaper’s offices and publishing house have also been shut down, the official said.
The arrests came after the newspaper published an October 15 op-ed that questioned God’s existence and launched a scathing attack against the Islamic faith. The piece has been widely condemned in the deeply conservative and religious country, where Islam is the state religion.
That anger boiled over into the streets of Kabul on October 24, when dozens of residents staged a protest against the newspaper. Demonstrators demanded that the daily be closed and the author of the op-ed be sentenced to death, warning that the protests would continue if their demands are not met.
The author, who wrote the article under the byline “A.J. Ahwar,” has been identified as Ahmad Javeed Ahwar, a 27-year-old Afghan student believed to be in the Netherlands.
On a Facebook page believed to be his but which has since been deactivated, Ahwar describes himself as a “secular, anti-Taliban activist.” Ahwar also appears to maintain a blog titled “True Pen.”
RFE/RL was unable to reach Ahwar for comment despite attempts through an intermediator.
‘What Type Of God?’
Ahwar’s op-ed was titled “The Islam Of The Taliban And ISIS,” an acronym referring to the Islamic State militant group that has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq and declared an Islamic caliphate.
In the piece, Ahwar claims that Islamic teachings give militants groups like IS and the Taliban license to kill nonbelievers. “What type of God you are? Are you insane? Can you tolerate an innocent human being to be killed? Are you OK with it? You ‘God’ are not understandable,” he writes.
He goes on to compare the “level of intolerance” in Islam to that of the Nazis.
“The fact is that neither God cares about human, nor does it matter to him if you worship him or not. It is a very old and boring novel now. We are OK without God,” Ahwar concludes.
Sources close to Ahwar’s family say he and his wife are currently seeking asylum in the Netherlands. Social media users have suggested that he wrote the piece to boost his case.
The newspaper has issued an apology and tried to distance itself from Ahwar. In an October 18 apology posted on its website, the newspaper said the article was published due to “a technical mistake.”
“We strongly condemn ideas and comments that were published to use this mistake for their political and individual purposes, we are not related to any political, religious, or any other armed groups,” the statement read.
‘Insult To The Whole Islamic Nation’
The eight-page newspaper has a circulation of around 1,000. Its readership consists mainly of foreigners, including the staff of foreign embassies and international NGOs.
Established in 2012, the publication describes itself as an “impartial newspaper” and says it “does not support any group or individual.” It is unclear how many people work for the paper.
The apology has done little to quell public outrage. Lawmakers and senior government officials have called for the newspaper to be closed and staff members responsible for publishing the op-ed to be prosecuted.
Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf, a prominent Islamist leader and scholar, described the article as “perverted” and called for harsh reprisals. A member of Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament also called on the government to take “serious measures.”
Afghan officials have reacted swiftly. Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s new chief executive with powers similar to that of prime minister, said the government is “ready to take serious measures” against “those involved in publishing this blasphemous article,” according to minutes of an October 20 meeting of the Council of Ministers.
The acting minister of information and culture said the newspaper was not registered and that the op-ed was “contrary to the values and principles” of Afghans.
Even NAI, an Afghan NGO advocating for free media, has slammed Ahwar and the newspaper. NAI chief Siddiqullah Tawhidi told reporters in Kabul on October 21 that Afghan media outlets should not publish content from individuals seeking asylum in the West.
During a meeting with religious scholars, Ghani described the article as an “insult to the whole Islamic nation,” according to an October 21 report on state-run National Afghanistan TV.
Under the constitution, free speech is protected and non-Muslims are free to practice their religions. But Afghanistan, which is governed by Islamic Shari'a law, forbids anyone from desecrating Islam. There is also a media law in place prohibiting publication of articles that are at odds with Islam.
Under Afghan law, those convicted of blasphemy can receive a jail sentence of up to 20 years. But blasphemy is also punishable by death under Shari'a law. Apostasy is also punishable by death.
In 2009, an Afghan journalism student was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death after asking why Islam does not give women equal rights. But he was released after being pardoned by former President Hamid Karzai.