In Afghanistan a student journalist waits for death. He is accused of blasphemy – speaking against Islam – but his supporters say he is
written by JEF CATAPANG
When five Afghan National Directorate for Security (NDS) officers in Masir-e-Sharif came to the apartment of young journalist brothers Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh and Sayed Yaqub Ibrahmi, they arrested Kaambakhsh, put him in handcuffs, and ordered his older brother to leave the room.
“They told me, ‘We need your brother for one or two hours. . . and then we will release him,’” says Ibrahimi, in Kabul over a shaky phone connection.
His brother was arrested on October 27, 2007. Five days later, Ibrahimi visited Kaambakhsh at an NDS prison where he appeared sick and afraid. He was bunking with terrorists and political prisoners.
“When I wanted to say goodbye, he just requested of me, ‘Please release me,’” Ibrahimi says. Months later, his brother is still in custody. The prospect of his release is still very much up in the air, as he sits awaiting a third trial with no date set as of publication time.
In January of this year in a democratic Afghanistan, Kaambakhsh, 23, a journalism student at Balhk Univeristy in Masir-e-Sharif, was charged with blasphemy. The Council of Mullahs, a group of fundamentalist religious leaders, successfully urged the courts to sentence him to death. His trial was held behind closed doors and no lawyer was present to represent him.
According to his brother, 27, the death sentence is the result of an Internet article detailing aspects of the Koran that are allegedly anti-women. Originally, Ibrahimi says, Kaambakhsh was accused of authoring the offending article. Those charges wouldn’t stick, so officials then changed the accusation, saying he downloaded and disseminated the article.
“He didn’t download it,” Ibrahimi says.
Ibrahimi is a staunch political reporter who writes for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in Afghanistan. He maintains the arrest has more to do with himself than with his brother. According to him, officials are using his brother to curb him from criticizing the government–a theory supported by the organization Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF).
“Everybody is pretty much convinced that it’s actually his brother that they’re all after,” says Katherine Borlongan, secretary-general of RSF’s Montreal branch.
Ibrahimi has written about government corruption, the mistreatment of the people under the tumb of warlords and commanders sexually abusing men and forcing them to dance – a double-edged assertion, since gay culture is taboo in Afghanistan.
Local officials “are afraid of independent media, especially international media,” Ibrahimi says. “In different ways, they wanted to put the pressure on independent journalists, because they are afraid of independent media.”
And the pressure seems to be working.
“It’s had a very negative effect on Afghanistan’s media [and] freedom of expression,” says Ibrahimi, who left Masir-e-Sharif and is now staying in Kabul. “I’m in hiding, I cannot work,” he says.
“I’m a journalist. I cannot be scared. But I’m careful.”
In Norway, 5,000 kilometers away, Afghan journalist Kamran Mir Hazar has been closely following Kaambakhsh’s case. He runs the non-profit news website Kabulpress.org and fled Afghanistan in early 2008 after several incidents that threatened his freedom of speech.
In late 2007, Mir Hazar was arrested twice in as many months. In the second incident according to reports, he was detained and interrogated for nine hours while handcuffed, and warned not to criticize the government in any further articles.
Mir Hazar says awareness raised surrounding his case secured his release. “Local and international journalist unions and human rights organizations put pressure on [President] Hamid Karzai to release me,” he says.
The hope is that similar international pressure can help free Kaambakhsh.
Robert Menard, secretary-general of RSF’s Paris branch, said in a March report that Afghan ambassadors to France and Spain relayed a message from the president regarding growing concern over Kaambakhsh’s life: “Karzai would never sign a decree authorizing Pawez’s execution,” quoted the report.
Mir Hazar however remains skeptical and stresses the need for continued international support. “I don’t believe Karzai. I think he’s under pressure from different factions, local journalists and also international organizations, and also some political groups inside and outside of Afghanistan.”
Mir Hazar says any conciliation made by Karzai will be the fruit of this political pressure, not of Karzai’s own benevolent judgment. “If Hamid Karzai orders Pawez’s release, it is not because he believes in freedom of speech.”
In the United States, a former colleague of Ibrahimi worries deeply about freedom of speech. Zabihulla Noori, who finished his masters of journalism this year at Arizona State University, met Ibrahimi five years ago through the IWPR in his native Afghanistan. Noori was working as an office manager and Ibrahimi was then joining the reporting staff.
“Back then he had long hair, and he was very respectful to me,” Noori says. “He asked how media operates in the United States… I found him to be a really nice guy.”
Noori agrees that Kaambakhsh’s death sentence has more to do with Ibrahimi’s work than with Kaambakhsh’s alleged activities on the Internet.
“I believe this is how the system works most of the time,” Noori says. “To defeat someone in power, instead of directly attacking them . . . they just pressurize him in an indirect way.”
He says Ibrahimi has been backed into a corner, the ordeal preventing him from doing his job. “Now it’s three or four months later, and of course that poor guy is just trying to save his brother. He’s not focusing on the issues, the corruption of the government.”
Noori has lost contact with his colleague, receiving updates on his status through a common acquaintance. He worries that, because he studies in the U.S and can easily be accused of collaborating with “non-believers”, if they were to appear on each other’s phone records it would make Ibrahimi more vulnerable to strong-arming.
“In Afghanistan, if you talk against the government . . . there is a possibility that you can be saved. But if you talk about Islam, there is no way,” Noori explains. “I don’t want to put him in that position.” He hasn’t spoken with his friend since last October.
Because of the controversy, Noori is scared for his own future as a journalist in Afghanistan. With his program wrapped up, his time living in the U.S. is at its end.
“I don’t know what I am going to do when I go back there,” he says, speaking with admiration of the freedom of speech in the United States. But in his home country, Noori’s belief in freedom of expression clashes with the beliefs of those in power.
“I don’t know how I’m going to perform as a journalist,” he laments. “Basically, I’m going to be one of those people – if I want to just make a living – who just goes along with them, like, ‘OK, whatever they say.’”
Ibrahimi is unsure if his brother will continue a career in journalism should he be released. “I think it’s up to him,” he says. “I believe that when he will be released, it’s likely that he will be in danger.”
But for Ibrahimi this is a necessary risk. “If you want to work as an independent journalist in Afghanistan, you should accept this kind of risk, and accept this kind of challenge,” he says.
His parents, who live in northern Afghanistan, are concerned.
“They think that our writings, our activities as journalists in Afghanistan put them in trouble,” Ibrahimi says. The brothers’ careers have caused some tension within the family.
“Sometimes my father tells me, ‘It’s because of you, it’s because of your writing.’ I know he’s angry, but now is not the time to be angry. It’s a time to just be active on how to release Pawez,” he says.
Kaambakhsh has since been transferred to a prison in Kabul where Ibrahimi was assured he would be distanced from other inmates. However, he has not been able to visit his brother since the transfer and does not know his current condition.