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Afghanistan: Imprisoned Journalist Says Freedom Of Expression Under Attack

Ali Mohaqeq Nasab (file photo) (epa) Prague, 29 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan journalist Ali Mohaqeq Nasab, the editor of the "Hoqoq-e-Zan" (Women's Rights) monthly, was sentenced to two years in prison in October on blasphemy charges. An appeals court reduced that to a six-month suspended sentence last week, after Nasab -- who is also an Islamic scholar --apologized for articles he had written that 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. His arrest was condemned by international media rights groups, such as Reporters Without Borders and the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Conservative clerics had originally demanded the death penalty for Nasab, but the independent Journalists Association of Afghanistan said even the nearly three months Nasab spent in prison was too severe a penalty. In an interview with RFE/RL from Kabul, Nasab said his arrest and incarceration shows there is still only limited freedom of expression in Afghanistan. He also said Afghan journalists are under attack by those who are using religion as a tool to advance their own causes.

RFE/RL: You were jailed and put on trial on charges of blasphemy and insulting Islam. What was the basis for the charges against you?

Nasab: I was arrested on a charge of insulting Islam, but this was only an excuse because the real issue was a plot that originated from outside the country. Insulting Islam was only an excuse. The reality was something else.

RFE/RL: Could you be more specific?

Nasab: Currently, the conditions are such that I don’t want to name people. The order came from one of Afghanistan’s neighbors, and the plot originated from there. Insulting Islam was used as an excuse. I had an article in Issue No. 7 of "Hoqoq-e-Zan." The title was "Apostasy According to the Koran." In that article, I wrote that apostasy -- or abandoning one’s [religion] -- is not a crime. Although is it considered haram [religiously unlawful or prohibited] in Islam, it is not a crime. People should not be prosecuted because of their ideas. They said my article was an insult against Islam, and they carried out [their plan].

RFE/RL: You rejected the charges that were brought against you.

Nasab: Yes, I rejected the charges. I did not accept them. In my view, apostasy is not a crime. I expressed it as a religious and a legal view. There is strong evidence to support this, and a group of scholars share this view.

RFE/RL: You were released from prison a few days ago. Why did the court drop the charges against you?

Nasab: My guilt or the charges against me were not proven. Even the first sentence against me -- two years in prison -- was politically motivated. Otherwise, if apostasy had been proven, the sentence is much heavier, according to most religious authorities. Even in the first stage, the charges against me were not proven. But because of political issues and because there was a group behind it, they sentenced me to two years in prison. Finally, in the last session of the court [on 21 December], I was acquitted.

RFE/RL: You say the case against you was a plot by foreigners, but yet you were arrested after complaints by some conservative clerics in Afghanistan.

Nasab: Yes, the conservative clerics executed this plot. It originated from outside, but they were the executioners.

RFE/RL: Who do you blame for your arrest and for spending three months in jail?

Nasab: I consider the main culprit to be the movement that came from outside and religious extremists who mobilized inside it. There are a group of people who -- based on their family background and race -- are against our [Hazara] people, although I don’t belong to any [political] group or party, and I’m neither for or against anybody. But they targeted me as part of my people and tribe, with the aim that from these people nobody should grow and reach success. That’s why they created this problem.

RFE/RL: Your arrest created fear and concern among journalists in Afghanistan. It also led to concern that self-censorship would increase among media workers in Afghanistan. What is your view? What are the consequences of your arrest?

Nasab: It had mixed consequences. Regarding the coordinated efforts of the journalists, they reached a positive result [with my release from jail]. But it also showed that, in Afghanistan, freedom of expression has not been achieved as we had expected. There is no freedom of expression. Some have said that if it goes on like this, freedom of expression may be no more. But finally we reached some positive results. We were able to prove to the world, to our country, to those in charge and others that there should be freedom of expression, if not now then in the future.

RFE/RL: But currently, as you said, the situation is far from ideal, and journalists face many challenges in Afghanistan. There are certain red lines they should not cross, such as criticizing or questioning religious issues.

Nasab: Of course, now the reality is that we are claiming that there is democracy and freedom of expression. I think Article 34 of our constitution says that freedom of expression is immune from violations. But those who are in charge of enforcing democracy and freedom of expression are people who do not believe these [principles]. They are even the enemies of these principles. Therefore, there isn’t enough freedom of expression. There are many red lines. But God willing, we will do our best to slowly overcome these issues and support freedom of expression.

RFE/RL: So does that mean that, despite everything, you are going to continue to work as a journalist in Afghanistan?

Nasab: Yes, I’m in my office [in Kabul] now, and I’ve been having talks with officials and academics, so that I will continue with energy and force. I am not looking for adventure. I just want to perform my job right and work for national unity and democracy.

RFE/RL: Are you concerned that you or some of your colleagues could be arrested in the future?

Nasab: Yes, this concern always exists in Afghanistan for all journalists in all provinces. There have been problems and similar incidents in Herat, in the north, in Kabul, in many other places. But as the result of efforts by [journalists and organizations defending press freedom], the situation is a bit better, and the government will also strive for better cooperation. We will succeed in consolidating freedom of expression in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Who are the biggest enemies of journalists in Afghanistan?

Nasab: In Afghanistan, most attacks [against journalists] come from reactionaries and people who use religion as a tool. During the last 25 years of conflict, they have always used religion for their own goals. It’s the same now. They are against issues such as freedom of expression, democracy, and civilization. Although many of them are in charge of enforcing democracy, they don’t believe in it.

RFE/RL: The last question is about the conditions inside the prison in Kabul where you spent the last three months. You said in a press conference shortly after your release that the conditions were very bad.

Nasab: There are several problems [in prison]. One is that addiction is widespread. Different types of drugs are distributed inside the prison. There are cigarettes, opium, and similar things. Secondly, they insult the prisoners. Some were beaten. Some were chained and put under "special regimes," as they call it. There are things that have remained from the Middle Ages. The feet of the prisoners are chained, and they have to walk with those chains. These treatments are neither legal nor religiously correct. There are also many people held there who are innocent.

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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.