Confusion and anger as judge orders indefinite postponement in blasphemy trial of Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh.
By Jean MacKenzie in Kabul (ARR No. 291, 02-Jun-08)
|Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh in court, June 1, 2008.
The mood was almost festive at the start of the latest appeal hearing in the case of Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, who has spent over seven months in prison facing execution on a charge of defaming Islam and the Prophet Muhammed.
A large sign in English proclaimed “This Way” with arrows pointing to the courtroom, and the large group of observers had simultaneous translation into English laid on, complete with special interpreting equipment.
The Afghan and international press corps, representatives of foreign embassies and human rights groups, civil society activists including a long row of brightly dressed and very intense Afghan women had turned out in force at the Kabul Appeals Court for what everyone expected would be the last chapter in a long and dismal saga.
Two previous sessions had ended in adjournment – the first, on May 18, because there was no defence lawyer present, and the second, on May 25, because Kambakhsh complained of ill health.
Everyone was sure this would be the last time the court needed to gather.
The rumour mill had been working overtime, confidently predicting that Kambakhsh would be released at the June 1 session.
The speculation had turned from the case to Kambakhsh’s future – would he be able to stay in Afghanistan, or was the risk of reprisals by religious fundamentalists too great? Was there a country prepared to receive him? Were plans already in train?
But it soon became clear the defendant was not going anywhere.
A thin, pale Kambakhsh was led into the courtroom in handcuffs. He smiled for the dozens of cameras, and politely extended his hands to have his shackles removed. He wore a leather jacket over his prison-issue, black-on-white Afghan clothes, a long tunic over baggy pants.
The secretary of the court conducted a 30-minute recitation of the text that Kambakhsh was accused of having downloaded.
When it came time for the defence to present its case, Kambakhsh stood and recited verses from the Koran to indicate that he was and remains an observant Muslim. He then replied to the court’s questions about his health, saying that he was prepared to continue his case.
His lawyer, Mohammad Afzal Nooristani, then introduced a motion asking for a medical examination to support Kambakhsh’s claim that he had been tortured.
After a short adjournment, the presiding judge, Abdul Salam Qazizada, ruled that Kambakhsh should be handed over to forensic doctors, who would then inform the court as to the validity of his allegations. In contrast to previous sessions, no date was set for continuing the appeal.
While the delay seemed to be at the behest of the defence, those close to Kambakhsh maintain that it was in fact a ploy by the court – and by extension the government – to keep him under wraps for the next few weeks.
“The lawyer introduced the motion to have Parwez examined one week ago, but the judge would not consider it,” said Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, Kambakhsh’s brother, who has worked as a journalist with IWPR for the past five years. “He said the motion had to be read in open court.”
Ibrahimi appeared stunned by the turn of events. Along with his father, Sayed Ahmad, who was present but not inside the courtroom, he had expected to be able to take his brother home.
“We expected that he would be released, but now I don’t know what will happen,” said Ibrahimi. “I think the court just wants to kill time.”
Kambakhsh’s ordeal began on October 27, 2007, when he was arrested in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, for allegedly downloading and circulating a text that harshly criticised Islam.
The incriminating document, authored by an Iranian exile who writes under the penname Arrash Bekhoda (“Arrash the Godless”), casts doubt upon the character and behaviour of the Prophet Muhammad, particularly as regards his multiple wives.
Bekhoda also criticises, at times quite harshly, the Koran’s strictures on women. For example, in courts of law the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man; a woman is entitled to only half the inheritance that males get. Men are allowed multiple wives, but women cannot have more than one husband. Bekhoda repeatedly states that these restrictions violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Kambakhsh has denied the charges against him, despite a signed confession that he says was coerced.
At the time of his arrest, Kambakhsh told relatives that he had been psychologically pressured into admitting that he had been behind the dissemination of the downloaded text.
Only recently have allegations of physical mistreatment surfaced. Kambakhsh told the court on May 18 that he had been tortured, and has since explained that his nose and left hand were broken as officers from the National Security Directorate attempted to obtain his signature on the confession.
The case has been plagued with procedural difficulties from the start. At the initial trial in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, Kambakhsh had no legal representation and was given no opportunity to defend himself. The trial was also closed to observers. Kambakhsh was simply summoned into a room and handed a death sentence.
Relatives and supporters spent two months trying to get the case moved from Balkh to the Afghan capital Kabul, where they felt Kambakhsh would have a better chance of a fair trial.
During that time, the family tried without success to find a lawyer willing to take the case on. Some agreed, only to quit after a few days.
“We’ve gone through at least ten lawyers,” said Ibrahimi.
That accounted for Kambakhsh’s lack of representation on May 18. At that session, he made a stab at representing himself, but his speech was emotional and unfocused, leading family and friends to fear for his psychological welfare.
“He was not okay,” said Ibrahimi. “He is under pressure.”
In the past seven months, this young student from an educated family has been in no fewer than six jails, has mixed with criminals of every stripe, and has become the centre of world attention. It would not be surprising if he were showing the strain.
At the May 18 session, Judge Qazizada told Kambakhsh that he needed legal representation, and adjourned the hearing. A week later, once Nooristani was aboard, the trial resumed. But the lawyer had not been given sufficient time to prepare the case.
Kambakhsh complained that he was too ill to continue, and this second session was adjourned within minutes, with the date set for the following Sunday, June 1.
Observers who were present at the third session were divided in their assessment of proceedings.
“The judge is trying hard to ensure due process,” said one foreign diplomat. “And the torture allegations are the defence’s best chance.”
But another member of the foreign diplomatic community was indignant that the defence had not been given a chance to deny the charges.
“Anyone leaving the court today would assume that the charges were correct,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They should have been given the chance to read their defence statement.”
According to the defence team, the court required Nooristani to present his motion for a medical examination before being allowed to read the statement. Once the motion was introduced, the court quickly ruled on an adjournment.
“This trial has had a lot of legal problems,” said Lal Gul, head of the Afghan Human Rights Organisation, which has assisted Kambakhsh’s family in preparing for the trial. “There have been many violations of the law. According to Sharia [Islamic law], even if someone converts [to another faith], he has three days to repent. If he apologises, he is set free.”
According to the Afghan constitution, Sharia is the highest authority in the land.
The case may hit further snags along the way. Lawyer Nooristani has told friends and acquaintances that he has received threatening phone calls.
With all the confusion surrounding the case, Kambakhsh supporters are getting discouraged.
“It certainly seems that this case is politically motivated,” said the foreign diplomat quoted above. “The whole mood around the case is changing.”
Jean MacKenzie is IWPR Afghanistan programme director