Patrice Riemens on Sat, 16 Feb 2008 16:21:28 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Ranjit Hoskote: Liberally Dispensing Death (on Death Sentence to Journalist in Afghanistan)

bwo Sarai Reader List/  Shuddhabrata Sengupta

Dear Friends,

I enclose an OpEd article that I have just written for the Hindustan
Times. A longer version of this piece, incorporating a view for
Central European readers by Ilija Trojanow, will appear in the
Sueddeutsche Zeitung tomorrow. Please feel free to share this article
with friends and colleagues, as the life of Sayid Pervez Kambaksh now
depends on the intensity of the international opinion we can build up.

Friends in the EU countries and in the US could consider getting in
touch with your elected representatives or with organisations
committed to the defence of human rights and cultural freedoms --
especially in those countries that have troops posted in Afghanistan,
or are involved in reconstruction and infrastructure projects there.

In solidarity,


(Hindustan Times: OpEd Page, Friday: 15 February 2008)

Liberally dispensing death

A journalist faces the gallows


Half a decade after the overthrow of the Taliban, young Afghans can
still risk their lives by pressing the copy-paste buttons on their
PCs. As you read this, a 23-year-old journalist sits in prison in the
northern city of Mazhar-e-Sharif, sentenced to death by a religious
council. His crime? He downloaded an article on Islam and its views
on women from the internet, and distributed it among fellow students
with a view to promoting discussion.

Sayid Pervez Kambaksh, a Balkh University student who also reports
for a local daily, Jehan-e-Nau, was charged with indulging in 'anti-
Islamic activities' and arrested on October 27 last year. In blatant
defiance of Constitutional provisions, he was not produced before a
court but turned over to the Shura-e-Ulema, the high council of
religious scholars, which tried him on January 22, diagnosed him
guilty of apostasy and recommended hanging as the cure.

Although the Shura-e-Ulema confines itself to interpreting the
religious Shari'a law and does not enjoy judicial authority, its
ruling has been endorsed by the Afghan Senate. And President Hamid
Karzai, promoted by his US sponsors as the poster boy of a war-
ravaged country liberated from theocratic barbarism, has indicated
that he may not overturn the decision.

International outrage at these kangaroo-court proceedings has grown
steadily during the last few weeks. Civil society networks have
appealed to world leaders to act. The Independent and the Guardian
have petitioned the British government to reason with President
Karzai. It has been pointed out that Kambaksh was not permitted
access to legal defence, during a trial held in camera. It has been
argued that the judgement makes a mockery of Afghanistan's
Constitution, which asserts that "freedom of expression shall be
inviolable. Every Afghan shall have the right to express thoughts
through speech, writing, illustrations as well as other means in
accordance with the provisions of this Constitution."

The Kambaksh case has been read as a classic illustration of the
Islamic clergy's intolerance of the freedom of expression, its
apparent inability to cope with a plurality of views. At one level,
this is true. Having renounced the philosophical spirit of ijtihad,
critical re-interpretation, which once animated and profoundly
enriched Islamic thought, many (though not all) Muslim jurists now
take up conservative, even regressive positions.

The Member of Parliament who moved the Senate's condemnation of
Kambaksh was none other than Sibghatullah Mojadedi, an Islamic
scholar and President Karzai's spiritual guide. Mojadedi briefly
served as his country's President during the early 1990s, heading the
US-backed Mujahideen government that morphed into the Northern
Alliance after Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's forces put it to flight. Between
them, the academic Mojadedi and the former oil company consultant and
CIA trainee Karzai present a suave, reasonable face to the world.
Trace their connections within the patchwork of Mujahideen factions,
and they emerge in their true colours: as front-men for the rapacious
oligarchy of clerics, warlords, turncoats and thugs that dominates
post-Taliban Afghanistan.

This brings us to the deeper reality of the Kambaksh case, which is
masked by the too-easily-convincing narrative of religious
intolerance. It is the reality of a puppet regime's rampant
corruption, violent misrule, and disdain for public scrutiny. The key
actors in this sordid tale are politicians who have got their hands
on vast redevelopment funds flowing in from the West. Also, officials
who regard torture, rape and extortion as legitimate instruments of
governance. And above all, chieftains who control Parliament and the
poppy harvest with equal facility, creaming the profits from a
flourishing narcotics trade that is vaster than the government's
annual budget and accounts for more than half of Afghanistan's total

Kambaksh is paying the price for his brother, Sayid Yaqub Ibrahimi's
outspoken criticism of this situation. Ibrahimi, a leading
investigative journalist who works with the Institute of War and
Peace Reporting, has consistently exposed government corruption and
human rights abuses in northern Afghanistan. In recent months, he has
been subjected to escalating harassment by the National Directorate
of Security (NDS). His computer has been ransacked. He has been asked
to reveal the sources for some of his stories. Even as Kambaksh was
being arrested, Ibrahimi's office was sealed and his home searched by
the NDS. Reports suggest that Hafizullah Khaliqyar, deputy attorney
of Balkh province, threatened local journalists with arrest if they
voiced any protest at these perversions of the rule of law.

The Sayid brothers are not the first Afghan journalists to have
fallen foul of the establishment. While Karzai has repeatedly
congratulated himself on international platforms for having ensured
media freedom, his record is impressively shabby. In June 2003, for
instance, he was all approval when Afghanistan's chief justice
ordered the closure of the Kabul newspaper Aftab (The Sun) and the
arrest of its chief editor Sayeed Mir Hussein Mahdavi and deputy
editor Ali Reza Payam Sistany. This, at a time when Afghanistan was
caught up in a momentous public debate over the shape of its new
Constitution. Mahdavi and Sistany had committed the unforgivable sin
of publishing articles questioning the role of religion in politics
and the clergy's methods of interpreting religious texts. The chief
justice, Fazl Hadi Shinwari, was an ally of the ultra-Right Kabul
politician Abdul-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf; he stuck the same deadly label
on the Aftab editors that Kambaksh now carries, "charged with
insulting Islam".

True, the Karzai government has promulgated a 'media law' that allows
for independent newspapers, radio stations and television channels,
and guarantees their freedom. However, one of its provisions insists
that no one may publish anything that affronts Islam, while leaving
the terms of affront vague and capacious. The commission set up to
handle infringements of the media law was chaired by the minister for
information and culture, skewing its decisions in favour of the
state; under criticism, the government proposed the token inclusion
of a few representatives of civil society groups.

In a recent article, Waheed Warasta, executive director of the
Afghanistan PEN Centre, deplores the Karzai government's discreet
withdrawal of support for media freedom. "Proof of this can be found
in the Press Guidelines paper that was distributed to the free media
runners last year," writes Warasta. The document forbids criticism of
the US-led coalition, coverage of Taliban suicide attacks, and the
publication of any news that could lower public morale. "This letter
was distributed by the Afghan intelligence to the media â?¦ The
spokesman of the President later claimed that he did not know that
the intelligence had issued such a letter."

Was Karzai playing along with the intelligence service? Or is there a
deep state within the state, over which he has little control? In
either case, he has betrayed the hope that he would lead Afghanistan
out of decades of ecclesiastical terror and endemic violence, and
towards a liberal order. He first betrayed it during the Loya Jirga
or grand council of June 2002, when Afghanistan's warlords and
clerics made it clear that they would not return to their barracks
and seminaries, threatening women delegates and insulting civil
society activists. With the Kambaksh case, Karzai has fallen lower
still. Will he condone the most appalling contraventions of natural
justice and democratic procedure, if it helps him retain his shaky
grip over what is essentially a narco-polity?


Ranjit Hoskote is a poet and cultural theorist. He is also general
secretary of the PEN All-India Centre, a platform committed to the
defence of intellectual and cultural freedoms.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info:
#  archive: contact: