Freedom of expression organisations Reporters Without Borders and Article 19 call on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to intercede on behalf of former journalist Ahmed Ghous Zalmai and Mullah Qari Mushtaq, who were sentenced yesterday by a Kabul court to 20 years in prison for publishing a Dari translation of the Koran. Dari is the Farsi (Persian) dialect spoken in Afghanistan.
"We appeal to the president’s spirit of tolerance and ask him to intercede on behalf of two men who have been given extremely severe sentences," the two organisations said. "Their aim was not to violate Islamic law, but only to promote the Koran among the Persian-speaking peoples. We are appalled that men whose intellectual and religious intentions were honest and humanistic have been punished in this manner, and we call for their release and acquittal."
The court that sentenced Zalmai and Mushtaq to 20 years in prison imposed a five-year suspended sentence on the printer, Mohammad Ateef Noori, who will nonetheless be kept under police surveillance. The court released the three brothers of Zalmai who were accused of helping him try to flee the country.
The defendants described the verdict as "illegal." Zalmai’s lawyer, Abdul Qawee Afzali, said he would appeal.
Zalmai was well known in the 1980s as a fairly outspoken TV journalist, hosting a talk-show, "People’s voice," that let viewers call in and speak on the air. He worked as a cultural attaché in an Afghan embassy after the fall of the communist regime. After several years of exile in the Netherlands, the Karzai government invited him back to work for public radio and television. Respected by fellow-journalists, he headed the Afghanistan National Journalists Association. He was also spokesman for the Kabul prosecutor’s office for several years.
He was arrested in October 2007 near the border with Pakistan, where he had been hoping to find refuge after mullahs denounced the printing of 6,000 copies of the Koran in Dari and fundamentalists groups demanded an "exemplary punishment." The religious affairs minister went so far as to claim that it was a "Zionist conspiracy."
Zalmai and Mullah Mushtaq used a translation into Dari that had been done in the United States but they failed to print the Arabic original alongside the translation, as required by Islamic law. Fundamentalist mullahs also claimed that the translation contained "errors" and reflected "mistaken concepts."
Zalmai, who has five children, was held incommunicado for several weeks after his arrest. He reportedly told prosecutors he regretted his involvement in printing the translation.