A journalist friend of the condemned student Sayed Pervez Kambaksh has fled Afghanistan fearing for his life, after an extremist mob threatened to kill him.
Yahya Najafizada escaped halfway across the world when his name appeared on a blacklist of alleged heretics. The list was compiled by hardline sharia students in Mazar-e Sharif, just days after Pervez was arrested for circulating an article about women's rights.
The university students, backed by the local Ulema, or religious council, published the blacklist after a frenzied demonstration demanding Pervez, 23, face the death penalty.
A closed court of three judges has since met the mob's demands. Pervez's family insist he was denied a defence lawyer and the case has sparked outrage across the globe. More than 84,000 people have signed The Independent's online petition demanding the British Foreign Office lobby for his release. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the United Nations top Human Rights Advocate, and the Nato secretary-general have urged Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai to intervene. He has promised that "justice will be done".
But vigilante gangs twice threatened Yahya's home in the centre of the provincial capital, where he used to meet Pervez to discuss civil rights and freedom of speech: "If I didn't leave Afghanistan, they could do with me what they did with Pervez, and other democracy campaigners," Yahya said.
He also received threatening phone calls accusing him of spying for the "nfidels" – the Nato-led coalition in Afghanistan – and of converting to Christianity, which is a capital offence under Islamic sharia.
Terrified for his own safety, the young reporter set off for Kabul along treacherous mountain passes usually closed in the winter because of snow. But there was no let up in the campaign of intimidation.
"Extremists threatened me several times via mobile phone, sms, and twice some unknown people came to my house asking for me.
"They held a demonstration against us and after demonstrations they made the blacklist. It was a list of journalists, poets and students of Balkh University. Most of them critical of government."
Yahya, 22, fled to neighbouring Pakistan, and from there to Norway, where he is still in hiding. He fears the extremists may still target his friends and family.
"I don't trust the police to protect me," he said. "Fundamentalists are working in high places in the Afghan government and police. They are against democracy and human rights in Afghanistan."
Yahya was working for a Nato-owned newspaper called Voice of Freedom. But even his international paymasters offered him no protection from the religious wing. "It is difficult for ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force] to deal with the extremists who are the majority of Afghan People about this issue. I spoke with my supervisors and the people who are working for ISAF security, but they didn't promise to protect me."
The death sentence on Pervez was endorsed by Afghanistan's senate and more than 100 religious and tribal elders who rallied in eastern Afghanistan's tribal belt, to demand President Karzai refrain from using his executive powers of pardon. Yahya fears Pervez could yet face the gallows and he urged the international community to continue its campaign to secure his release.
He said: "He is a friend. We have the same ideology of having equal rights in our society of men and women. All the countries and international organisations who are claiming that they support freedom of speech and democracy in Afghanistan should force the Afghan government to save him... from hanging."Reuse content