Afghan journalist jailed for distributing Koran

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The Independent Online

In the Soviet-occupied Kabul of the late 1980s, Ahmed Ghous Zalmai was a charismatic television and radio host, the people's favourite enemy of the state. He survived the Soviet tyranny – but would not be so fortunate under the Western-backed "democracy" of President Hamid Karzai. Since October 2007, he has been in prison for helping to distribute translated copies of the Koran.

Afghanistan in the 1980s was a police state and a generation of intellectuals and educated or influential people was already decaying inside the notorious Puli Charkhi prison.

Mr Zalmai started the first Afghan open talk radio called "Voice of the People". Callers didn't have to identify themselves and Mr Zalmai took their complaints to the relevant authorities, demanding a response. The programme was eventually brought under control, but the precedent was set; Mr Zalmai was already hosting other programmes.

He found a way of turning the rhetoric of the Communist state on its head – using the language of propaganda to point out the government's failures, challenging the authorities to answer the people they claimed to serve.

After the fall of the Communist regime in 1992, Mr Zalmai became a cultural attaché to the mujahedin government at the Afghan embassy in Tajikistan.

Eventually he moved to the Netherlands as a refugee, until he received a formal invitation from the new Afghan government, asking him to return to take up an important post with the official Afghan TV and Radio. Mr Zalmai moved back to Kabul with his family to return to his profession. He became the president of the Association of Afghan Journalists and spokesman for the Attorney General's department (Saranwal) of the Afghan government.

When, as a teenager, I got the job of co-hosting a youth radio show with him, I was envied by peers and strangers alike. What people loved and feared about him was not just his good looks, dress style and the fact that he spoke French, but his ability to encourage criticism at a time when other media personalities were either fleeing the country, or too frightened to risk their positions.

Mr Zalmai's journalist colleagues claim that the Attorney General himself, Zabar Sabit, an overly religious man, played a significant role in Mr Zalmai's arrest. Mr Sabit is widely regarded as sympathetic towards the Taliban; some say he is proving his credentials because he is waiting for the Taliban's return to power. Mr Zalmai and his friend are accused of distributing a Koran which consists of "mistakes" and "misconceptions".

The Farsi (Persian) edition of the Koran – Dari, the Afghan version of Persian, is one of Afghanistan's two official languages – had been published in the United States but appeared in Afghanistan without its original Arabic text alongside. Mr Zalmai had two other collaborators from the Saranwal with religious credentials to help him with the project, one of whom was also arrested. Small groups of students demonstrated against Mr Zalmai even though he had no role in the translation.

He has been imprisoned without any formal charges and has been given no access to a lawyer. Whether belonging to the wrong ethnic class – being a member of a well-known Sufi order – or because he was regarded as a liberal, Western-thinking intellectual, Mr Zalmai is paying for a crime he has not committed.

He has five children, and his family has been allowed to see him only once since his arrest. Despite an outcry among Afghans in the West, there has been no interest in his case expressed by Western governments, least of all the United States.

The Koran was translated and published in Farsi decades ago. But in Afghanistan these days, the Taliban's growing influence and the sensitivity of the increasingly de-legitimised Karzai government towards anything religious, are reason enough to teach others a lesson in servitude.

Nelofer Pazira is a journalist, film-maker and human rights campaigner

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