An Afghan appeal court on Tuesday overturned the death sentence of a young reporter accused of insulting Islam, but upheld his conviction of blasphemy and sentenced him to 20 years in jail.
Perwiz Kambakhsh, in his early 20s, was arrested a year ago in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in a case that attracted worldwide condemnation and calls for President Hamid Karzai to intervene.
After hearing evidence from several witnesses, the three-judge panel unanimously overturned the death sentence passed down by the primary court in the northern province of Balkh.
”We sentence you, Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, to 20 years in prison for insulting Islam and the respected Prophet Muhammad,” the head judge Abdul Salam Qazizada said.
Kambakhsh and his lawyer, Mohammad Afzal Shormach Nuristani, told reporters afterwards they would appeal. The sentence was ”unjust”, Nuristani said, alleging corruption in the judiciary.
The young man was arrested after he printed off the internet and distributed an article that allegedly questions some tenets of Islam and aspects of Prophet Muhammad.
He has alleged torture during his year-long detention and said his initial trial in Mazar-i-Sharif lasted only minutes and he was given no legal representation.
At Tuesday’s hearing, five of his former lecturers at Balkh University testified that Kambakhsh had asked them questions they believed were insulting to Islam.
One such question was, ”Why is Islam a harsh religion?”, one said.
Another lecturer, Mohammad Yaseen, accused Kambakhsh of disrupting his classes by asking ”hostile, careless and rude questions about Islam.”
But a classmate, identified only as Hamid, said his testimony at the first trial had been made under pressure from the country’s intelligence department.
Nuristani, the defence lawyer, said none of the witness statements supported the original charge of blasphemy.
Afghanistan’s judicial system is based on Islamic Sharia law, which forbids criticism of Islam and rules that the death penalty should be applied in cases of blasphemy.
A booming media is one of the successes of post-Taliban Afghanistan but journalists are at the same time subjected to intimidation from the courts, officials, extremist insurgents and United States-led military.
In September a court sentenced a former journalist and a mullah to 20 years in prison each for publishing a translation of the Qur’an alleged to contain errors.
Former journalist Ahmed Ghous Zalmai was arrested in November 2007 trying to escape into Pakistan as religious clerics and Parliament were in an uproar about a Dari-language version of the Muslim holy book he had published.
Mullah Qari Mushtaq, who was sentenced with him, had approved the version, which other clerics and parliamentarians claimed contained errors and misunderstandings about issues such as homosexuality and adultery. – AFP