Pervez verdict is wrong, says jail chief

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The Independent Online

The head of the prison where Sayed Pervez Kambaksh is being held believes it was "very wrong" to sentence the young student to death and that he should be freed as soon as possible.

General Taj Mohammed, chief of the prison service for northern Afghanistan, told The Independent: "He is a young man and he does not deserve to die, he does not deserve what has been done to him. I do not think it is right that someone should be killed for an offence like this. I believe we should be much more tolerant. We are, after all, meant to be a democratic country."

Mr Kambaksh, 23, has been incarcerated at Balkh prison in Mazar-i-Sharif after being convicted of blasphemy for downloading an internet report on women's rights. The supreme court has agreed that his appeal against conviction and sentence may be moved to the capital, Kabul.

General Mohammed was sent to the north by the government just under a year ago as part of ongoing reforms at the Ministry of Justice. He said: "I have no power to interfere in the judicial process, I cannot just decide to release him.

"But, and Pervez probably does not even know this, I have spoken to the prosecutors here saying that what happened was very wrong. They said this was the law and the judges have convicted him.

"Hopefully, the process of law, the appeals, will now make sure that Pervez is freed. I have said to him many times not to get depressed and to keep himself occupied with office work if that helps. I have also said that he can have books sent in to continue with his studies. That goes for all prisoners here, male and female; they are always welcome to bring in books." General Mohammed, from Paghman, near Kabul, began working life as a teacher, before joining the Culture Ministry, then the Ministry of Justice. He refused to continue working during the years of Taliban rule because, he says, that would have meant "accepting injustice".

He said: "I was a teacher and I know how important education is. Also I dealt with a lot of journalists when I was in the Culture Ministry. Sometimes, what they wrote was inaccurate and irritated me. But that does not mean we should ban what they are writing. I do not believe in that form of censorship and I think this is something which applies to Pervez's case, and this time it has gone too far."

The general believes that even if Mr Kambaksh is freed, his life may never be safe. "Unfortunately, we have fundamentalists in our society; not all have gone with the fall of the Taliban. To these people Pervez is a heretic, the enemy, and they may try to harm him.

"I have made sure that he is safe in this prison but obviously things will be different if he is released. My personal feeling is to be safe, he must continue his studies far away from this place where he will not be recognised and where people will not know his history."

The commander said his broader priority was to improve conditions in the prison. "This place is meant for 200 people and we have 360. The conditions here are not good and we need to expand the prison and make the conditions better. Unfortunately, we are a poor country and prisons are not the first priority for resources. But the problem is people will come in here and leave as professional criminals unless we try to give them training for jobs.

"It is also the wrong place for people like Pervez, and others seeking education, it is a waste of everyone's time them being here."

Mr Kambaksh had been assaulted and intimidated by Islamist prisoners while at Balkh. The situation, has, he says, improved. "I am not getting the kind of bad treatment that I was receiving at first and I must thank the prison authorities for that. It is not pleasant being here but my problem is with the court system and the judges, just waiting, waiting for something to happen."

Mr Kambaksh's brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, a journalist, has deposited legal papers for the appeal. "We have been told Pervez would be moved to Kabul and it would be an open hearing," he said. "But we are having problems getting lawyers. They are frightened they may be targeted by the fundamentalists if they got involved."

The Kambaksh case

* Pervez Kambaksh has been accused of downloading material from an Iranian website, in Farsi, concerning what the Koran says about women's rights and whether this has been misinterpreted by fundamentalists and how in the Prophet's time women had more equality than the mullahs admit. It also asks why, if men are allowed multiple wives, can women not have multiple husbands.

* The blog entry in question was on a wide-ranging discussion site looking at various aspects of modern life in relation to Islam.

* Mr Kambaksh says he did not post anything on that site or any other; he also says the site he was questioned about was not the one he had downloaded from.

* The prosecution has refused to identify any websites and a judge in Mazar has admitted to not having read the allegedly blasphemous material.

* Four unidentified students are alleged to have complained that Mr Kambaksh was the author of material on an "anti-Islamic site". He has emphatically denied these claims and no students are willing to discuss the case.