Afghan student sentenced to 20 years for blasphemy 
October 22, 2008 - 7:13AM

An Afghan appeals court overturned a death sentence today for a journalism 
student accused of blasphemy and instead sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

A three-judge panel sentenced 24-year old Parwez Kambakhsh to prison after a 
day of arguments between the student's defence lawyer and state witnesses.

Kambakhsh was studying journalism at Balkh University in the northern city of 
Mazar-i-Sharif and writing for a local newspaper when he was arrested in 
October 2007.

Prosecutors alleged that Kambakhsh disrupted classes by asking questions about 
women's rights under Islam. They also said he illegally distributed an article 
he printed off the internet that asks why Islam does not modernise to give 
women equal rights. He also allegedly scribbled his own comments on the paper.

A lower court sentenced him to death in a trial critics have called flawed in 
part because Kambakhsh had no lawyer representing him.

The head of today's three-judge panel, Abdul Salaam Qazizada, struck down the 
lower court's death penalty but still sentenced Kambakhsh to 20 years behind 
bars. The judge said the decision can be appealed to the Supreme Court.

"I don't accept the court's decision," Kambakhsh told The Associated Press as 
he was leaving the courtroom today. "It is an unfair decision."

Today, five witnesses from Mazar-e-Sharif - two students and three teachers - 
appeared before the judges.

The first witness, a student named Hamid who gave only one name, told the court 
he had been forced into making a statement accusing Kambakhsh of blasphemy by 
members of Afghanistan's intelligence service and a professor who threatened 
him with expulsion.

Other witnesses testified that Kambakhsh had violated tenets of Islam.

John Dempsey, a US lawyer working for six years to reform the Afghan justice 
system, said today's decision was flawed.

"It was not a fair trial," said Dempsey, who has been following the case. 
"Procedurally, he did not have many of his rights respected. He was detained 
far longer than he should have been legally held. The defence lawyer was not 
even allowed to meet the witnesses until a night before the trial."

After Kambakhsh was sentenced to death in January, Muslim clerics welcomed the 
lower court's decision. Public demonstrations were held against the student 
because of perceptions he had violated the tenets of Islam.

Reporters Without Borders called on President Hamid Karzai to intervene, and 
the International Federation of Journalists denounced the lower court's 
closed-door trial and Kambakhsh's lack of a lawyer.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said earlier this year it 
was concerned that Kambakhsh may have been targeted because his brother, Yaqub 
Ibrahimi, had written about human rights violations and local politics.

Ibrahimi told the AP today that his brother was sentenced because of the 
pressure from warlords and other strongmen in northern Afghanistan, whom he has 
criticised in his writings.

The death sentence against Kambakhsh came to symbolise Afghanistan's slide 
toward an ultraconservative view on religious and individual freedoms.

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