By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
His pen name says it all: Arash Bikhoda -- or "Godless," in Persian. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, that's a dangerous name. But Bikhoda is an Iranian-born student and Internet journalist who lives in Europe. He's also the author of "The Koranic Verses That Discriminate Against Women," a controversial article that, a world away in Afghanistan, has landed journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh on death row.
In what media reports called a secret trial, a three-judge panel in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif on January 22 sentenced Kambakhsh to death for "blasphemy." The ruling, which highlights the tension between international human-rights law and some conservative interpretations of Islam, has been widely condemned by human-rights organizations in both Afghanistan and around the world.
Kambakhsh was arrested in October after reportedly distributing the article among students. Authorities apparently believed he was its author, but his brother told RFE/RL this week that Kambakhsh had copied the article off a website.
Bikhoda, speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Farda, confirmed that it was his website -- and his article. He also expressed sadness over what has happened and appealed to the Afghan government to ensure the death penalty is not carried out.
"But from a legal and moral point of view I don't feel responsible," Bikhoda says. "In the rules of my websites, it has been written that many people consider the articles blasphemous and that they might seem insulting. The publishing and use of these articles in Islamic countries is usually not in line with the laws in these countries, and it is also written that the articles contain the personal views of the authors."
'No Right To Arrest Him'
One chief judge from northern Afghanistan's Balkh Province says Kambakhsh has confessed to the crime, and that only President Hamid Karzai could pardon him. While it remains unclear what the journalist may have told the authorities, the question of whether he penned the article appears to be vital in determining his guilt.
"If the convicted person doesn't accept that he wrote the article, and if he denies being quoted, then no court can judge his faith [according to Islamic Shari'a law]," Abdullah Attaei, an Afghan expert in Shari'a law, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "When he denies that he wrote the article, then no one has the right to arrest or investigate him or even to try to prove him guilty."
In Kabul, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has expressed concern about the case against Kambakhsh.
UNAMA says cases involving religion and freedom of expression occur in many countries and require care and sensitivity in their handling. UNAMA urged a proper and complete review of this case as it goes through the appeals process. "The pressures for punishment, warnings to journalists, as well as the holding of this case in closed session without Mr. Kambakhsh having legal representation point to possible misuse of the judicial process," UNAMA says. "This would not serve the cause of justice."
Afghanistan's constitution commits it to uphold both Islamic values and universal human rights. Some see those values as compatible -- but not Bikhoda.
The journalist, who asked that his location not be identified due to security concerns, says his article tackles important issues facing the Islamic world. "In the article, [I have cited] Koranic verses that are discriminatory -- for example, the legal superiority and superiority in status of men over women, or the possibility for men to have several wives," Bikhoda says. "These kinds of issues were cited from the Koran and made clear that they are not in line with international human rights laws."
But while expressing concern over Kambakhsh's fate, Bikhoda says he is also heartened to see that Afghanistan has people brave enough to express their views -- even at great personal risk. "I am happy that people such as Kambakhsh live in Afghanistan," he says. "Now there will be more world attention on the issue of intolerance toward intellectuals in Islamic societies -- that this is how Islamists deal with those who oppose them. Instead of giving them a logical answer, out of weakness they use violence and death sentences against them."
Islamic authorities in Mazar-e Sharif defend the sentence against Kambakhsh.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Balkh Province Attorney-General Hafizullah Khaliqyar said Kambakhsh had insulted Islam, misinterpreted the Koran, and distributed the article to others. He denied there had been any violation of the journalist's rights and said the trial was held in a "very Islamic way." Khaliqyar also said that he would arrest any journalist who defended Kambakhsh.
The case is now set for the first of two appeals. Kambakhsh will remain in custody during the process.
(Golnaz Esfandiari is the director of Radio Farda. RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)
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