A Deadly Text Free Speech Case Tests Afghanistan
A young Afghan has been sentenced to death for printing out a Web page in which Muhammad is described as a misogynistic prophet. The case will help to determine whether an Islamic country can open itself up to the West.
Sayed Pervez Kambaksh can walk four or five steps forward and backward and three to the side. Aside from the metal bunk bed, a table, a chair and a wooden shelf, his cell contains a primitive toilet and a shower that doesn't seem to work. In Afghanistan, this counts as a good cell. After all, it is a cell for a very special prisoner.
One of the most disconcerting aspects of being a prisoner here is that there is nothing to do. When the door locks behind him, he is left with a sense of uncertainty and with his thoughts, which usually revolve around death and salvation, right and wrong, thoughts he constantly chews over in his mind like a tough piece of meat.
He has received two visits from his brother Yaqub and one from his father. After that, Kambaksh was left to wait for something to happen, hoping that the appeals court in Kabul, which is reviewing his appeal, will do something, and that the judges will understand that they cannot simply string him up or have him face a firing squad for a simple piece of paper.
The Pol-i-Charkhi prison seems to appear out of nowhere like a stone spaceship. Located on the eastern edge of the Afghan capital Kabul, the prison is reached by driving to the end of an unpaved road, a road with potholes so deep that they can engulf a car tire. Depending on the weather and season, the road is either hard and dusty or consists of a deep, brown mud. It leads through a barren landscape devoid of trees and people, ending in front of a tall, steel gate flanked by two stone watchtowers.
The prison itself consists of a collection of faded buildings, narrow and rectangular like upended shoeboxes, constructed in the 1970s and used by the Soviets, the Taliban and now the country's new government. The prison holds 3,200 prisoners: murderers, terrorists, kidnappers, thieves and a handful of poor souls who have no money and no legal representation -- and of whom no one can really say whether they are guilty or innocent.
The text read:
Muhammad sinned often. Muhammad subjugated women. The Koran portrays women as if they were not quite sane. Islam is a religion that is against women.
The Koran justifies Muhammad's sins. Whenever Muhammad wanted something, he would sing a sura and claim that it was coming directly from Allah. He simply banned everything that didn't suit him and allowed the things he liked. It's a joke. This is the true face of Islam, Allah and Muhammad.
Kambaksh may have overestimated his own country. Or perhaps he was deliberately pushing his luck, and maybe he was simply trying to determine how far one could go in the new Afghanistan.
Kambaksh copied a few passages from the text and arranged them. Whether he wrote a few lines of his own is unclear. Then he printed the text, and later handed out a few copies to fellow students at the university he attended in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. He wanted to stimulate discussion, just as he had once discussed Marx and Hegel.
The matter quickly gained momentum. A copy of his printout reached the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan's domestic intelligence agency, which has its offices across the street from the university. Kambaksh was questioned and then released. His opponents soon began to gather together at the university. Students and instructors organized protests against Kambaksh, accusing him of blasphemy. The mood became increasingly tense, as more and more copies of the text turned up.
To this day, Kambaksh insists that he doesn't know who made the extra copies and where they came from. Soon the copies numbered in the hundreds, and his name was at the top of every one of them. The situation became uncomfortable for Kambaksh. Mullahs at the city's Blue Mosque demanded action be taken. Kambaksh began spending his nights at the houses of friends, and he stopped going to the university. A man from the NDS called his older brother, Yaqub, to tell him that Kambaksh should turn himself in to the agency -- for his own safety. The population, the man said, was agitated, and Kambaksh would be protected against attacks if he was in NDS custody.
Yaqub drove his brother to the gate of the NDS complex, convinced that he was doing the right thing. It was Oct. 27, and it would be Kambaksh's last day as a free man. "I was there for one week," he recalls. "They interrogated me several times a day. At some point, I was at my wits' end and I asked them: 'What do you want from me?' They shoved a piece of paper in front of me on which it was stated that I had copied the text from the Internet, added a few of my own lines, and then duplicated and distributed it. I signed the piece of paper." It was a confession.
An Intimate Court
On Jan. 22, Kambaksh, now a prisoner, was taken to the hearing room at the provincial court in Mazar-i-Sharif. The city is in northern Afghanistan, in a region where German troops are stationed. The hearing room was small and intimate, with its vase of plastic flowers, curtains and a framed photograph of President Hamid Karzai. The room seemed to say: Don't worry, it won't be as bad as you think.
For the presiding judge, Shamsurahman Mohmand, who was wearing heavy, gold-framed sunglasses to protect his sensitive eyes, the room serves as both his office and courtroom. Two other judges sat next to him. The charges were read by Shafiqa Akbar, an experienced prosecutor and a friendly-seeming woman, who was filling in for a sick colleague on that day. It was approximately 4 p.m. Although it was a public hearing, no spectators had found their way to the small room. Kambaksh had no attorney. He was defending himself.
The case revolved around a single sheet of paper, a copy of the text, which Judge Mohmand removed from the file and held up for everyone to see. The sheet of people was the entire case.
Mazar-i-Sharif is smaller and more provincial than Kabul. But the air is better and the city is home to Afghanistan's most beautiful house of worship, the Blue Mosque. Kambaksh was a fourth-year journalism student at the city's university. He shared a small apartment with his older brother Yaqub, a journalist.
Kambaksh was not a bad student, but he periodically felt limited by his environment. The lectures bored him and he considered the instructors to be dogmatic. They were not helping him grow intellectually. After reading books about politics and philosophy, Marx and Hegel at home, he wanted to talk about their view of the world.
Kambaksh comes from a family that is relatively non-religious, at least by Afghan standards. The father was an instructor at the military academy in Kabul and had attended university in Moscow. When the communist government fell in 1991, Kambaksh's father quit his job and took his family to the north, where he found work in an exchange office. Then he opened a bookstore.
Kambaksh and his brother Yaqub were given books to read by some of the world's preeminent writers, including Goethe, Russian classics by Gorky, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. Later they read Nietzsche, Sartre and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. For someone with Kambaksh's upbringing, a country like Afghanistan is bound to become very confining before long.
- 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'