Liberally dispensing death
[ opinion - february 08 ]
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 income.
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 … 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?