Afghan Court Throws Out Death Sentence Against Student Journalist

A Kabul appeals court has quashed a death sentence imposed on the Afghan student Sayed Pervez Kambaksh for downloading information from the internet on women's rights.

The judges ruled however, that the 24-year-old trainee journalist should serve 20 years in jail -- a decision Kambaksh's lawyers insisted was unconstitutional and should be overturned by the country's supreme court.

The appeal court decision was seen as a major legal victory for Kambaksh. According to the defense team, as well as a number of other legal experts, the court had the power to uphold or set aside the death sentence, but it had no right to "arbitrarily" impose a jail term.

A petition by the readers of The Independent to secure justice for Kambaksh had attracted more than 100,000 signatures and won the backing of human rights groups and international statesmen. Yesterday the student's family said they had already received widespread messages of support and were confident he would be freed in the next stage of the legal process.

During yesterday's hearing, one of the prosecution's main witnesses, a fellow student, Hamid Ali, appeared to withdraw his testimony against Kambaksh, who was also prevented by the judge from addressing the court over his protestations that an alleged "confession" had been beaten out of him.

After the hearing, Kambaksh said: "I was, of course, hoping to be freed, but the fact that they have said I no longer face the death sentence is a big relief. I really did not think I would last this long. I thought they would make sure that I disappeared. Hearing the judge say that long sentence was very surprising, but I now just want to continue with the legal cases and, hopefully, I'll get freed. I also want to say I am very grateful to everyone, especially The Independent, for what they have done so far and I would be very grateful if they would continue to support me."

Amnesty International appealed for Kambaksh to be freed. "There are no legal grounds for either his conviction or this sentence," said Sam Zarifi, its Asia Pacific director. "While it can only be a positive step that he is no longer on death row, he should be freed immediately."

Kambaksh's lawyer, Mohammed Afzal Nuristani, said: "There were a lot of irregular things at the appeal court like the judge not letting my client speak about the torture he has suffered. It was also very good for Pervez that their main witness, Hamid, did not incriminate him in his evidence. These are matters I can raise with the Supreme Court. The first thing I am going to do is challenge the 20-year sentence. This court had no right to impose that. This will take another few months, but at least they are not going to hang him and we now have time."

Kambaksh was convicted in January 2007 after students at his local university accused him of disseminating material on women's rights which "insulted Islam". In an earlier interview at Balkh prison he said the trial lasted just four minutes and he was not allowed to speak in his defense before being sentenced to death. Even the head of the jail where he is being held, General Taj Mohammed, said that, in his view, Mr Kambaksh should be freed.

The first appeal hearing took place in May. Since then there have been a number of adjournments which the student's lawyers blame on prosecutors.

Yesterday, Kambaksh's brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, said: "Pervez has now been in prison for more than two years for no reason at all. What happened today [at the appeal court] was because there are still extremist people in this country who want us to stay at a dark time. The trial was very unfair and they came to a decision which all the lawyers tell us is illegal. We hope the Supreme Court will now take the right course and Pervez will be freed one day soon."

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