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Jailing of Afghan publisher ignites debate on free speech

Essays probed women's rights, justice system

KABUL, Afghanistan -- When Ali Mohaqeq Nasab returned to Afghanistan last year after a long exile, he thought the atmosphere had opened up enough to raise questions about women's rights and the justice system in his country's nascent democracy.

But the magazine publisher's provocative essays put him at the mercy of that system. He was imprisoned on blasphemy charges and facing possible execution until his release last week.

After refusing for three months to retract his comments, Nasab told an appeals court last week that he was sorry for writing stories that asserted women should be given equal status to men in court, that questioned the use of harsh physical punishments for crimes, and suggested that converts from Islam should not face execution.

A panel of three judges responded Wednesday by shortening his punishment to a six-month suspended sentence, allowing him to walk free.

Nasab's case ignited fierce debate over free speech in a country that has been rapidly modernizing since the end of Taliban rule four years ago, and yet remains deeply rooted in traditional Islamic culture and extremely sensitive about issues of religion and the role of women.

His offense, according to the Afghan courts and conservative clerics, was to contravene the teachings of Islam by printing the comment in his monthly magazine, Women's Rights.

The essays, published in May, attracted the belated attention of a prominent Muslim cleric, who delivered a sermon several months later denouncing Nasab as an infidel.

Nasab, 47, reported the incident to Afghanistan's justice system, but instead of receiving the protection he had expected, he was arrested, put on trial and sentenced to two years in prison.

Prosecutors had contended that the two-year sentence was far too lenient, and that unless he apologized, he should hang.

''According to sharia law, if he does not repent and if he does not return to his religion, he should be executed," Abdul Jamil, who heads the public security division of the attorney general's office, said in reference to Islamic law.

Nasab, a short, soft-spoken man with a graying beard, initially said he had no intention of repenting and that he could not return to a religion he never left.

''I haven't committed any sin to repent for. If I'm not a sinner, then why should I repent?" he said. ''I'm a Muslim, and what I mentioned in my magazine doesn't have a single conflict with my religion. I'm more of a religious person than they are."

Nasab's conviction has had a chilling effect on other Afghan journalists and threatens to seriously erode freedoms achieved since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, according to Rahimullah Samander, director of the Center for International Journalism here.

It has also put President Hamid Karzai, who heads a fledgling, Western-backed democratic government, in an uncomfortable position. Karzai has repeatedly expressed support for a free press, but the constitution prevents him from interfering in the decisions of the judiciary, which is dominated by religious hard-liners.

A Western diplomatic source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, said various Western embassies had expressed concern about the case to the Afghan government.

Samander said the Karzai government generally has refrained from meddling with the country's nascent but rapidly proliferating media outlets, which include 350 publications, 40 radio stations and four independent television stations. The Nasab case, he said, has thrown all that progress into doubt.

''If they release him, they will show to everyone that they are serious about press freedom," Samander said before Nasab made the retraction. ''If he is kept in jail, all this talk about press freedom will amount to nothing."

Karzai's spokesman, Karim Rahimi, had said the government strongly supports free speech but could not do anything to influence the courts. ''The judiciary system is entirely independent," he said.

In his magazine, Nasab suggested that a woman's testimony in court should be given the same weight as a man's testimony, rather than half. He also questioned whether cutting off the hands of thieves was too severe a penalty. Finally, he argued that it was up to God, not to man, to punish Muslims who convert to another religion.

Nasab, who studied Islam at a university in Iran, ran afoul of the government there after he published a book questioning its religious authority. After returning to Afghanistan, he began writing increasingly controversial articles based on views that he said were supported by a careful reading of the Koran and shared by other Islamic scholars. But some Afghan religious leaders disagreed, and several campaigned for his arrest this fall. Turning to the judiciary for help, Nasab walked into a Kabul courthouse Oct 1. -- and was promptly handcuffed.

Just two weeks later, he was put on trial for blasphemy. The outcome was never in doubt, according to Ahmad Nader Nadery, who heads the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. ''The way the trial was conducted, it was very obvious that there was an intention that . . . without respect to rules and procedures, they were going to punish him," Nadery said, noting that Nasab was not allowed to choose an attorney and shouted down by prosecutors and judges when he tried to speak.

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