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Afghanistan 6 August 2003

Supreme court confirms death sentence for two journalists for "blasphemy"

Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) today voiced outrage at the supreme court’s decision to uphold death sentences for journalists Sayeed Mahdawi and Ali Reza Payam. They are accused of blasphemy for saying the Islam practised in Afghanistan was reactionary and for criticising the political use of the religion by conservative leaders. The two journalists are currently in hiding within Afghanistan.

In a letter to President Hamid Karzai, Reporters Without Borders said it was regrettable to once again see the conservatives who dominate the Afghan judicial system abuse their power to attack freedom of expression. The organisation urged him to ensure the safety of the two journalists and called for reform of the supreme court "so that it becomes an independent body that guarantees individual freedoms."

The organisation also called on the UN secretary-general’s special representative in Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, to mobilise the full weight of the international community in defence of freedom of expression in Afghanistan.

The death sentences were requested a few days ago by the council of ulemas (consisting of 13 Muslim scholars) and were confirmed in a 10-page document signed by supreme court president Maulavi Fazl-e Hadi Shinwari. The government would appear to be under the obligation to implement this decision by the country’s highest court although a lower court is already handling the case. A supreme court judge told a Reporters Without Borders source that "this sentence is above the law."

New arrests warrants have been issued against Mahdawi, editor the weekly Aftab, and Payam, a Iranian national, which has been closed ever since the publication of its 11 June issue containing the offending article, headlined "Holy fascism."

The two journalists were originally held for a week before being released as a result of President Karzai’s intervention. They were supposed to have appeared before a judge to explain their article, but after a demonstration by Islamists opposed to their release, they went into hiding to avoid reprisals. An Afghan newspaper has published fatwas sentencing them to death.

They asked in the offending article: "If Islam is the last and the most complete of the revealed religions, why are the Muslim countries lagging behind the modern world?"

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