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Afghanistan: Editor's Arrest On Blasphemy Charges Highlights Difficulties Facing Journalists

(RFE/RL) The arrest of the editor in chief of an Afghan women's magazine is causing concern and fear among journalists in the country. Ali Mohaqiq Nasab ran the respected monthly magazine called "Women's Rights" (Hoquq-e Zan). He was arrested earlier this month for publishing articles deemed blasphemous and anti-Islamic. His arrest has been condemned by organizations defending press freedoms inside Afghanistan and also by international media rights groups, such as Reporters Without Borders and the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Prague, 20 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- One of the stories published in "Women's Rights" questioned the harsh punishment under Shari'a law for women found guilty of adultery, such as stoning. Another article argued that giving up Islam is not a crime.

The magazine's editor, Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, was arrested on 1 October following a complaint made to the Supreme Court by a religious adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Since then, Mohaqiq Nasab has appeared twice in court. The judges in charge of the case have accused him of intentionally publishing anti-Islamic articles and have said he should be severely punished.

Mohaqeq Nasab, who is also an Islamic scholar, denies the charges.

Rahimullah Samandar, the head of Afghanistan's Independent Association of Journalists, told RFE/RL that the country's Media Commission met on 18 October and concluded that Mohaqeq Nasab did not insult Islam in his articles. The meeting was called following a request by Afghan media groups.

Samandar, who is a member of the Media Commission, said the panel is now calling on the Supreme Court to release Mohaqiq Nasab:

"In all the words by Mohaqeq Nasab, the commission members did not find anything to prove that he is an apostate or that he had insulted Islam deliberately. Therefore, the commission found him not guilty and just ordered that, from now on, he cannot work as an editor in chief or managing editor of a publication [because of lack of journalistic experience]," Samandar said.
According to Afghanistan's media law, journalists can be arrested only after their case is first reviewed by the Media Commission. In the case of Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, this process was not followed.

Samandar said it is unclear whether judges will agree to free the jailed editor.

Robert Kluyver, the country representative for the Open Society Institute in Afghanistan, believes the case is politically motivated. He said Mohaqiq Nasab ran into trouble with conservative Shi'ite clerics when he was campaigning as a candidate for parliament.

"It is a case where conservative Shi'a clerics are fighting the more moderate Shi'a. In other words, it very much reminds one of the problem that exists in Iran. It was a general Shi'a issue. Meanwhile, Ali Mohaqeq Nasab was also a candidate for parliament [and was] attacked by more conservative Shi'a clergy for his more modernist views on religion," Kluyver said.

According to Afghanistan's media law, journalists can be arrested only after their case is first reviewed by the Media Commission. In the case of Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, this process was not followed.

Kluyver said the case sets a disturbing precedent. "Unfortunately, the problem is that there has been no stance on the principles -- first, on the following of legal proceedings in this country, and second, on freedom of press issues," he said. "In other words, this person will be released, but there is absolutely no indication that in a couple of months, another journalist will not be picked up on charges of blasphemy and will be tried by the Supreme Court. [It] is basically not in the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to arrest journalists and put them on trial for blasphemy."

Mohaqiq Nasab is not the first Afghan journalist to be picked up for alleged blasphemy. In 2003, two editors from the Afghan weekly "Aftab" were also detained for allegedly publishing articles that criticized the political use of Islam by conservative leaders. They were later freed, but were forced to leave the country because of threats.

Samandar said such cases deal a serious blow to freedom of expression in Afghanistan. He fears these incidents will lead to increasing self-censorship among Afghan journalists.

"In recent days, I see that journalists talk among themselves and say that such sensitive issues should not be touched on. Before this case, we had the issue with Tolo TV [in which the station's programs have been criticized by conservative clerics as un-Islamic]. Or before that, we had a crisis in Herat University where two journalists who had questioned some Islamic issues were expelled from the university for one year. If such cases increase, no journalist in Afghanistan will be able to write as it is needed," Samandar said.

A recent survey by a local media-development organization found that the harassment of journalists in Afghanistan is on the rise. The study found that many of the threats and intimidation tactics used against journalists are initiated by warlords and government officials.

Samandar said several measures need to be taken. "Article 31 of Afghanistan's media law should be [toned down]," he said. "It includes the issues that journalists are not allowed to write about. Journalists cannot write about Islamic issues, about religion. It should be [changed]. It is necessary for the freedom of journalists. In addition, international organizations which defend freedom of expression should put the Afghan government under pressure so that there is less pressure on journalists inside the country."

In a statement released after Ali Mohaqiq Nasab's arrest, Reporters Without Borders said the press is required to respect Afghanistan's official religion. But it added that authorities cannot assume the right to arrest those who peacefully express their views about Islam.

A group of Afghan writers based in Canada also wrote an open letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in which they refer to the arrest of Mohaqiq Nasab as "the imprisonment of all writers in Afghanistan."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.