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The case of a 24-year-old sentenced to death has exposed cracks in Afghanistan's justice system.
KABUL — The long ordeal of Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, sentenced to death for downloading sensitive Internet content, may be coming to a close. But the case will leave a lasting and bitter taste in the mouths of those who had hoped that Afghanistan was making progress toward democracy and rule of law.
People around Kambakhsh say privately that there are some positive signs that President Hamid Karzai might finally honor his promises to pardon the 24-year-old student, who has now spent close to a year and a half in prison, most of it under sentence of death for blasphemy. An appeals court later reduced the sentence to 20 years in jail.
Kambakhsh exhausted his legal remedies in early February, when the Supreme Court upheld the appeals court verdict in a closed-door ruling that was never published; Kambakhsh’s own lawyer found out about it almost by accident, when an officer at the jail let it slip to the prisoner himself.
Now all hope is on Karzai, who has promised on more than one occasion to see that the young man is released. But Karzai is himself under siege at the moment, facing an uphill battle in his bid for reelection. A major concession to the increasingly unpopular West might not be in his best political interests at the moment.
A cause celebre in much of Europe and, to a lesser extent, in the United States, the Kambakhsh case has exposed the contradictions within Afghanistan’s much-touted Constitution, the weakness of its central government, and the failure of international efforts at judicial reform.
Kambakhsh was arrested on October 27, 2007, in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. He was accused of downloading an article from the internet that criticized, in fairly harsh terms, Islam’s position on women. Kambakhsh is further accused of having distributed the offending material to three or four of his classmates in the journalism department of Balkh University.
For this he was condemned to death, in January of 2008, in a kangaroo court in which he had no representation, no witnesses and no opportunity to defend himself. He was deserted by his lawyers, who were threatened by unnamed sources, and abandoned by his friends, many of whom later said they had been pressured to sign affidavits condemning Kambakhsh.
His family scrambled for several months to find a new lawyer, and to have the case moved from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kabul, where, they felt, Kambakhsh had a better shot at a fair trial.
Attorney Mohammad Afzal Nooristani finally agreed to take on the challenge of defending Kambakhsh, and the Kabul Appellate Court held its first hearing in May 2008. The appeals process took several months, with numerous delays. At one session, Kambakhsh claimed that he was tortured into signing a confession during his initial incarceration by the National Security Directorate and his lawyer demanded a medical examination. The results were inconclusive, but the trial was pushed back by over a month.