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Afghan Journalist's Death Sentence Commuted

Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh at his appeals-court hearing in Kabul
KABUL/PRAGUE (RFE/RL) -- An appellate court in Afghanistan has commuted the death sentence of student and part-time journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh but ordered him to spend 20 years in jail for distributing an Internet article that questioned Islam's treatment of women.

Kambakhsh's lawyer immediately challenged the court's logic in handing down any prison time for the 23-year-old from northern Afghanistan.

"I am not convinced by the court session because witnesses didn't say a word relating to the distribution of that anti-Islamic article of which he is accused -- they [witnesses] were simply discussing some classroom arguments with no logical connection to this case," lawyer Afzal Noristani told reporters after the verdict, according to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

"Moreover, an individual that was presented as an eyewitness to the primary court -- who has been forced to testify -- has admitted to providing false information," Noristani said. "I would perceive today's verdict as an attempt at conspiracy, since no credible evidence has been provided to the court."

Kambakhsh and relatives have said they suspected his prosecution was the result of a private vendetta by an influential local warlord.

In a written response provided to RFE/RL after the verdict, his brother, Yaqub Ibrahimi, who is also a journalist, called it an "unfair" trail. He expressed disappointment that the "dramatic game" over his brother's fate was not over and said "it seems nobody [cares] about rule of law."

Kambakhsh was a student at Balkh University and part-time reporter with the "Jahan-e Now" daily when he was detained in October 2007. He was sentenced to death in January at a summary trial in a Mazar-e Sharif courtroom at which he had no defense lawyer and was not allowed to testify.

He has insisted all along that he was unfairly accused and suggested that his captors had coerced statements out of him through mistreatment.

Rights groups, journalism advocacy organizations, and media outlets in Afghanistan and abroad have condemned the conviction as unjust, and set up signature drives and other efforts to encourage authorities to release Kambakhsh.

The case has also attention from the Afghan and Western governments, and arose in meetings between President Hamid Karzai and top-level foreign visitors including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Karzai has repeatedly vowed to watch the case closely. There was no immediate indication after news emerged of the commutation as to whether the president expected to comment on the new twist in the case.

The head of the appeals panel, Abdul Salaam Qazizada, read the sentence to an open courtroom in Kabul on October 21 and noted that Kambakhsh has the right to appeal his sentence.

Islamic law stipulates that blasphemy may be punishable by death.

An Iranian-born blogger living in Europe came forward to say he had authored the piece that Kambakhsh purportedly distributed to classmates, which questioned polygamy and the condition of women under strict interpretations of Islam.