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Afghanistan 21 October 2008

In shameful decision, Kabul appeal court replaces young journalist’s death sentence with 20 years in prison

Reporters Without Borders is outraged by the 20-year prison sentence which a Kabul appeal court passed today on journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh after quashing the death sentence he received last January from a court in Mazar-i-Sharif, in the northern province of Balkh. The Kabul court upheld his conviction on a charge of printing and distributing blasphemous articles.

Kambakhsh, 23, described the court’s decision as an "injustice." His lawyer said he would appeal to the supreme court.

"Afghan justice has again failed to protect Afghan law and guarantee free expression," Reporters Without Borders said. "By sentencing this young journalist to imprisonment, the appeal court has eliminated the possibility of his being executed, but it has also exposed the degree to which some Afghan judges are susceptible to pressure from fundamentalists. Kambakhsh was able this time to be represented by a lawyer, but the appeal proceedings were marred by ideological distortion, a glaring lack of evidence and incomprehensible delays that ended up undermining the court’s serenity."

The press freedom organisation added: "We would like to express our support for Kambakhsh, who has already spent a year in prison, for his brother, Yaqub Ibrahimi, who fought to get him acquitted, and his lawyer, Mohamad Afzal Nuristani, who has defended the principles of Afghan law."

Abdul Salam Quazizadeh, the president of the Kabul appeal court, issued his ruling after several witnesses from Balkh province were questioned earlier in the day in court by both the prosecution and the defence. Five of Kambakhsh’s former teachers at Balkh university testified that he had asked questions that were "insulting" towards Islam. But a former fellow student retracted his earlier accusations, saying the police had pressured him to incriminate Kambakhsh.

Kambakhsh’s lawyer demonstrated that there was no proof of any blasphemy towards Islam and that the scant testimony offered by the prosecution as evidence did not directly concern the charge. Journalists in the courtroom reported that, before being led away by police, Kambakhsh said: "I do not accept his decision."

His lawyer said after the hearing: "This new verdict is an insult to the idea of justice and the Afghan constitution." His brother said: "The Mazar-i-Sharif sentence has been overturned but the accusations have been upheld although they are completely false. The judges have exposed the horror of the Afghan judicial system to the world. It is clear that the judges sentenced him on the basis of their personal views, not on the basis of Islamic laws or the constitution."

A journalism student at Balkh university and a reporter for the newspaper Jahan-e-Naw ("New World"), Kambakhsh was arrested in Mazar-i-Sharif on 27 October 2007 on a charge of "blasphemy and distribution of texts defamatory of Islam." Under pressure from the Council of Mullahs and local officials, the Mazar-i-Sharif court sentenced him to death in a trial held behind closed doors and without a defence lawyer on 22 January. Members of the security forces tortured him to obtain a confession.

His arrest was thought to have been prompted by the articles his brother, an investigative journalist, had written about the authorities in the Balkh region.

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