Afghan Journalism Student: I Was Tortured Into Confessing to Blasphemy

Pervez Kambaksh, the Afghan student sentenced to death after being accused of downloading internet reports on women's rights, yesterday pleaded innocent to charges of blasphemy. He told an appeal court in Kabul that he had been tortured into confessing.

Kambaksh, 24, vehemently denied that he had been responsible for producing anti-Islamic literature. He insisted the prosecution had been motivated by personal malice of two members of staff and their student supporters at the university in Balkh, where he was studying journalism.

He was convicted in proceedings behind closed doors in a trial which he said had lasted just four minutes and where he had been denied legal representation.

Yesterday, in the first public hearing of the case, the prosecution claimed that Kambaksh had disrupted classes at the university by asking questions about women's rights under Islam. It also said he distributed an article on the subject after writing an additional three paragraphs including the phrase, "This is the real face of Islam … The prophet Mohamad wrote verses of the holy Koran just for his own benefit."

In a highly emotional statement, Kambaksh said: "I'm Muslim and I would never let myself write such an article. These accusations are nonsense, [they] come from two professors and other students because of private hostilities against me. I was tortured by the intelligence service in Balkh province and they made me confess that I wrote three paragraphs in this article."

Kambaksh represented himself because his family are having difficulties finding a lawyer to represent him after threats by fundamentalist groups that anyone taking on the job would be killed.

The head of the panel of three judges at Kabul, Abdul Salaam Qazizada, adjourned the trial until next Sunday to allow Kambaksh further attempts to find a lawyer. As of last night they had not succeeded. The original trial took place in January. Kambaksh's appeal was moved to Kabul at his own request, amid fears for his safety in Mazar after international outrage at the sentence. A petition by The Independent to secure justice for him has attracted more than 100,000 signatures.

Prosecutor Ahmad Khan Ayar told the appeals court that the primary provincial court sentence to hang him was "the right decision" according to Islamic law and the Afghan constitution. "Kambaksh has insulted Islam by writing these paragraphs, and he has insulted the Prophet Mohamed. I ask the appeals court to uphold the decision of the primary court of Balkh and sentence him to death."

Under Islamic law, stipulated in Afghanistan's constitution, blasphemy is punishable by death. Two other Afghan journalists, accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death, escaped prison and have been given asylum in the West.

Kambaksh's case has been raised with President Hamid Karzai by Foreign Secretary David Miliband and the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

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