A Deadly Text Free Speech Case Tests Afghanistan
Part 3: 'They Sentenced Pervez in Order to Silence Me'
It is mostly because of Yaqub, the brother, that the case did not remain in the provincial court, and that it instead came to the attention of President Karzai and Condoleezza Rice. Yaqub wrote about his brother's predicament. He gave interviews, contacted Western aid organizations and flew to Europe, where he had been invited to talk about the case. In Amsterdam, he bought a pair of red socks that have since become one of his favorite pairs. The socks feature a likeness of Che Guevara in black and the word "Revolución" in yellow.
Yaqub is doing what he believes is his duty, as the older brother. He feels guilty about what happened to his brother. Yaqub refuses to be picked up anywhere. He says, on the telephone, that he will meet me at a certain location. Now he stares through the window of a small café, looking at Kabul in the valley below. It is night and the city becomes quieter and quieter, like a machine that has been switched off.
Yaqub Ibrahimi has been living in Kabul for several weeks. He sleeps in various places, in the apartments of friends and acquaintances, changing locations for security reason, he says.
"The whole thing is probably about me," says Yaqub. "They sentenced Pervez in order to silence me."
Who are "they?"
"The people I have written about. They've been waiting for an opportunity." He glances nervously around the café, looking as if he were about to jump up from his seat. "The piece of paper Pervez printed out was that opportunity."
Yaqub works for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a London-based organization that trains journalists in crisis regions. He reports on corruption and human rights violations, and he has written stories describing the lost country that Afghanistan seems to have been for a long time. He wrote about a military commander, a former mujahedeen and powerful man in his district, who kidnapped underage boys, dressed them as girls, ordered them to dance for him and then raped them. He also wrote about another commander who took away a mother's daughter and traded her for a fighting dog.
For that story, Yaqub received Italy's "Journalist of the Year" award in March. He became famous. But in Afghanistan he paid a heavy price for his fame.
"I had been getting threatening phone calls for some time. They told me to watch out, that they would find ways to get rid of me. At one point, five men with Kalashnikovs were standing in front of my apartment. Luckily I wasn't home that evening. The landlord told me about it the next day."
Perhaps everything is related: Yaqub's story about the commander and the death sentence against his brother, Pervez Kambaksh. Perhaps it is a plot. The problem is not whether or not this is true, but that he even considers such a conspiracy to be possible. Yaqub is only 27, and his brother is 23. They are the new generation, the kinds of people Afghanistan sorely needs if the country is to be rebuilt, but they have already lost confidence in the country's new age and new rulers. They do not believe that there is a new Afghanistan, but that, in fact, the country is still its old, rotten, threatening, lawless self. For people like Yaqub, the case boils down to a death sentence and five men with Kalashnikovs.
Yaqub says that Pervez will have to leave the country if he is acquitted. Everyone knows his name now, knows him as the man who committed blasphemy.
Has Yaqub actually read the text that his brother distributed?
"The text is not important," says Yaqub. "In Afghanistan, one has to be able to read and write everything. Freedom of opinion is at stake here."
Shafiqa Akbar, the prosecutor, wears a dark, patterned headscarf, and there is little severity in her face. Her office, a sparse, well-lit room, is only a few hundred meters from the small courtroom where Kambaksh was sentenced and where Judge Shamsurahman Mohmand has his office. Both Akbar and Mohmand have no doubt that they did the right thing.
"There was no other option but the death penalty," says Akbar.
"Someone who commits such a crime deserves to be put to death," says Judge Mohmand. There is no alternative. "Kambaksh insulted the religion of many millions of people, without taking national harmony into account," says Judge Mohmand.
"I hope you can understand that I cannot repeat the primitive insults to the Prophet and to Islam that the text contained," says Akbar. "But they were considerable."
And Article 34, the clause about freedom of opinion?
"Freedom of opinion is a very valuable thing. But that doesn't mean that one should be allowed to violate religious sentiments. Insulting a religion, any religion, is not part of freedom of opinion, but is a criminal offence," says Akbar.
But is it necessary to put someone to death for a violation of religious sentiments?
"There was no other possibility, unfortunately," says Judge Mohmand. "Under Sharia, this is the only option."
The death penalty for a text?
"I have already handed down several death sentences," says Mohmand. "What I do not understand is why this one is causing such a stir, especially abroad. There are no mistakes in the ruling."
Mohmand shakes his head. He laughs periodically during the conversation. He says that he has trouble understanding all the fuss, and why some journalists from halfway around the world have come to see him and are asking questions about law and a religion that they will never understand. In that, at least, he is right. The interview ends without answers. There is too much of a divide between the two cultures. It is an odd feeling.
'I Am a Muslim'
Sayed Pervez Kambaksh traveled along the unpaved road outside Kabul and passed through the gate at the Pol-i-Charkhi prison on March 27. He had a long journey behind him: more than 450 kilometers (280 miles) from the prison in Mazar-i-Sharif in the north to this place on the dusty outskirts of Kabul. He was brought to Pol-i-Charkhi in a car, his feet chained together and accompanied by two armed policemen.
After being admitted, his head was shaved and he was taken to a single-occupancy cell in a new wing built with Canadian money. That was when the door slammed shut behind Kambaksh, sentenced to death for blasphemy, false interpretation of the Koran and insulting the Prophet Muhammad and Islam.
There are books lying on his bed. Kambaksh says that he reads a lot -- fiction and poetry, mostly. He has the face of a boy. Shivering, he tightens his black leather jacket, which he wears over traditional clothing consisting of a thin, baggy fabric shirt and thin, baggy fabric trousers. He wears colorless rubber or plastic sandals on his otherwise bare feet. Kambaksh looks at the five prison guards standing in the cell, monitoring what he says. They look at him with the curiosity of people observing a rare animal.
Kambaksh was due to appear before an appeals court in Kabul Sunday. He hoped he might walk free, but in the end the hearing was adjourned.
Kambaksh's story could turn into a precedent, over where freedom of opinion begins -- and ends -- in Afghanistan. President Karzai has said that he will not become involved any further, but instead wait for the decision in the appeal.
Kambaksh speaks quietly for 20 minutes. He is a student who inadvertently fell into a situation that is too big for him. Then the conversation comes to an abrupt end. The five guards leave the cell, closing the door behind them.
"I have respect for democracy and for every religion," Kambaksh says at the end of the interview. "I am a Muslim."
It already sounds like a possible last sentence in a future closing argument.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Free Speech Case Tests Afghanistan
- Part 2: 'It Wasn't Easy for Me to Demand the Death Penalty'
- Part 3: 'They Sentenced Pervez in Order to Silence Me'