Sayeed Mirhassan Mahdawi (editor) and Ali Payam Sestani (reporter) of the weekly Aftab were freed on 25 June on the orders of President Hamid Karzai, who told a press conference they had been released pending their trial so they could organise their legal defence. He said he had acted as part of his duty to protect the national constitution and the religious beliefs of Afghans. After his release, Mahdawi said the articles he had been criticised for had not insulted Islam and that the case was a political conspiracy. He said he had been given permission to reopen the paper and provided with police protection. A supreme court judge told reporters that the two journalists had apologised.
Supreme court to try two journalists
The Afghan supreme court will try Aftab editor Sayed Madawi and his deputy Ali Payam Sestani for "libelling Islam," the court’s vice-president Fazel Ahmed Manawi announced on 21 June. The two journalists, who were arrested on 17 June, are being prosecuted for articles in the weekly’s 11 June issue but account will also be taken of articles in previous issues in the past few months. The case is still before the public prosecutor and no trial date has been set.
The UN secretary-general’s special representative in Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, yesterday called for the "immediate release" of the two journalists and a review of Afghanistan’s press laws in order to "promote freedom of expression, protect the rights of journalists and guarantee their freedom of work."
Newspaper closed and editors arrested for offence against Islam
Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about the closure of the privately-owned weekly Aftab and the arrest of its editor and deputy editor on 17 June for blasphemy because they published articles calling for a moderate interpretation of Islam and for its adaptation to the modern world in the wording of the new Afghan constitution.
"It is regrettable and worrying for the future of freedom of expression in Afghanistan to see a newspaper closed down and two journalists arrested for voicing their views on Islam’s place in the country’s future constitution," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said. He called on President Hamid Karzai to intervene to get them released and the newspaper reopened as soon as possible.
The Kabul supreme court’s council of ulemas (religious leaders) voiced outrage at articles in Aftab’s latest issue on 11 June. In a column headlined "Holy fascism," editor Sayeed Mirhassan Mahdawi criticised Islam as it is currently practised and linked the social and economic backwardness of Islamic societies to its archaic character. He also criticised ethnic crimes committed in Islam’s name, especially by former mujahideen chiefs. Another article in the same issue said Islam as practised in Afghanistan was contrary to democracy and to its citizens’ social and political rights.
Calling the articles an "offence to Islam," the supreme court asked for Aftab to be closed and its editor to be prosecuted. The government on 17 June order the newspaper’s closure and Mahdawi’s arrest for "blasphemy." Mahdawi and his deputy Ali Payam Sestani, an Iranian national, have been detained since then in Kabul. They have not so far been mistreated.
A special commission for press freedom and news media evaluation has the job of determining their degree of responsibility before referring the case to the judicial authorities. Aftab’s offices have meanwhile been closed. Copies of the latest issue were confiscated from several stands in the city.
The information and culture ministry has gone to great lengths to defend the supreme court’s position. "Several articles in the latest issue of Aftab were blasphemous (...) It was our duty to stop this newspaper’s publication", said deputy information and culture minister Hamid Mobarez.
With a circulation in Kabul of only several hundred, the Dari-language weekly is critical of the present government and the mujahideen chiefs. It has also often accused warlords and mujahideen of crimes. Mahdawi, who lived for a long time in Iran and comes from the Shiite minority, produces Aftab with the help of several Iranian journalists. He received death threats by telephone in April after publishing an article calling for a secular government in Afghanistan.
The debate about Islam’s role in the new Afghan constitution has been growing in the past few weeks.