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Afghan student's death sentence hits nerve
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KABUL, Afghanistan — A 23-year-old journalism student languishes in an Afghan jail, facing execution for insulting Islam in a case that has aroused worldwide outrage.

The death sentence handed to Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh on Jan. 22 is a sign of repression that still exists in Afghanistan more than six years after the fall of the fundamentalist Taliban regime.

The United Nations, citing "possible misuse of the judicial process," has urged the Afghan government to review the case. The U.S. State Department has criticized the ruling. Human rights activist Zainab Al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, called Kaambakhsh's sentence by a court in northern Afghanistan's Balkh province "an insult to all Muslims of conscience, who must demand his immediate release."

On Thursday, about 200 Afghans belonging to the small Solidarity Party of Afghanistan demonstrated in front of the main United Nations office here in the capital calling for his release.

Kaambakhsh was convicted of downloading blasphemous writings from the Internet and distributing them to fellow students at Balkh University, says Sham ul-Rehman, the court's chief judge: "He insulted the prophet Mohammed. He called him a murderer and a womanizer."

Kaambakhsh's brother says the case goes beyond religious freedom. Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, an Afghan investigative journalist, says his brother was denied a lawyer and signed a confession after being held eight days and threatened by officials from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's version of the FBI. Directorate spokesman Sayeed Ansari denied the agency had anything to do with the case.

"They didn't listen to my brother's defense," Ibrahimi says. "They decided everything beforehand."

Kaambakhsh is appealing his conviction, but still hasn't found a lawyer.

Ibrahimi suspects that he is the real target in the case. Ibrahimi has written extensively about the criminal activities of northern Afghanistan's warlords. One recent article, published by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, documented the way powerful officials have broken the law by rounding up handsome young "dancing boys" and abusing them sexually.

Kaambakhsh's conviction is "indirect pressure on me," Ibrahimi says. "After that, I stopped writing strong stories."

Rahimullah Samander of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association agrees that warlords are "behind the case. They are telling us: Don't talk about our corruption and our crimes."

Judge ul-Rehman denies that the case has anything to do with political pressure from local strongmen: "That is totally propaganda. No one is behind this."

The Internet writings that got Kaambakhsh into trouble were written by an Iranian atheist who lives in Europe and uses the pen name Arash Bikhoda ("Godless").

Journalism activist Samander says that Kaambakhsh may have read Bikhoda's writings, but never added any comments and never distributed them. Samander, who has investigated the case, suspects that the students who brought the complaint "were competing against (Kaambakhsh) in the classroom."

"The only mistake Parwez made was reading something," Samander says. "We don't have the freedom to read an article and think about it. What kind of democracy is this?"

Contributing: Wire reports

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Undated photo 23-year-old Afghan journalism student Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh. Kaambakhsh, who was sentenced to death on Jan. 22 for distributing a report he printed off the Internet
By Kaambakhsh family/AP
Undated photo 23-year-old Afghan journalism student Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh. Kaambakhsh, who was sentenced to death on Jan. 22 for distributing a report he printed off the Internet
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