Afghanistan will be judged by the way it treats one man this time there’s no Taliban to blame. The death sentence handed out to 23-year-old Afghan journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh on January 22 in a primary court in the province of Balkh has the support of Himachal Pradesh University alumnus, champion of liberalism and enemy of the Taliban, President Hamid Karzai himself. On October 22, 2007, Kambakhsh was arrested for downloading and keeping an article from the internet that spoke about what the Koran has to say about women. Picked up by the authorities in Mazar-e-Sharif, the student of journalism and contributor to Jahan-e-Naw was tried behind closed doors, without a lawyer to defend him and was found guilty of blasphemy and “disseminating defamatory comments about Islam”.
Some reports suggest that Kambakhsh has been targeted not so much for ‘blasphemy’ as for being linked with the writings of his brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahim, criticising the high-handedness of Balkh authorities. Not only has Kambakhsh been sentenced to death, but the Provincial Attorney General — not a kohl-eyed decapitation-happy Talib — vowed at a press conference that he would arrest any journalist who defended Kambakhsh.
One big downside about Kambakhsh’s situation is that he is an Afghan. When the Italian-Swiss correspondent of La Repubblica, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, was kidnapped by the Taliban in March 2007, international pressure ensured that the Karzai government didn’t shrug its chador-covered shoulders. After two weeks of captivity, Mastrogiacomo was freed — after the Italian ambassador to Kabul spent “hours and hours” fighting with ministers and officials of the Karzai administration who were refusing to carry out Karzai’s 'orders'. The Afghan President stated that he had persevered with the 'deal' with the kidnappers to “preserve the friendship of Italy”, a country that has 1,800 soldiers on Afghan soil.
Not so precious were the lives of Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi and Afghan driver Sayed Agha, who had been accompanying Mastrogiacomo, and were killed by the kidnappers. Karzai must have forgotten then that he had a duty to also preserve the friendship with the Afghan people. He should be reminded of this duty now.
It would be easy — far too easy — to consider Kambakhsh’s condition and sentence to be the sanctioned product of Afghan society and its laws. ‘Let the Afghans decide when one of their chaps transgress and decide on a culture-specific punishment. Let’s not get into a society’s laws.’ That’s exactly the kind of thinking that makes one believe that it isn’t regressive interpretations of Islam that are responsible for human barbarism but Islam itself. That’s the kind of thinking that makes one wonder whether Islam is liable to shake at its very roots every time one writes, talks, downloads anything critical about it. That’s the kind of thinking that would have given Hinduism a bad name and sati a social and legal sanction. The ‘culture-specific’ punishment happens to be death and the crime happens to be downloading a document. One elemental condition pitted with a ludicrously unharmful act. Even Karzai, under pressure of his own Taliban-ish associates, should see the utter banality of evil in the sentence meted out to Kambakhsh.
The chief judge who passed the sentence — there will be two more appeals with Kambakhsh in custody — has stated that only Karzai can now “forgive” Kambakhsh. The way one judges a civilisation, if not the faith that it practises, is the way it upholds the right of the individual while keeping in mind the integrity of the community or the State. If by downloading a document — however critical it may be of Islam — can get a person to the gallows, that society should be judged according to universal values that don’t need to be looked up and confirmed in the Koran or a Constitution. And if the Afghan people are not to be clubbed with the Taliban, if Karzai wishes to take Afghanistan away from the country envisioned by Mullah Omar as well as Islamophobes the world around, he will have to free Kambakhsh from his Mazar-i-Sharif prison.
That the Afghan senate in Kabul endorsed the death sentence of Kambakhsh on Tuesday is bad enough. It’s far worse what reputation Afghanistan and Islam, already battling up to its ears in a war of perception, will gain if Karzai rolls up his cloak sleeves and does nothing and lets Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh die.