Pervez interviewed in Afghan jail

Sayed Pervez Kambaksh: How he was sentenced to die

'What they call my trial lasted just four minutes in a closed court. I was told that I was guilty and the decision was that I was going to die'

Clutching the bars at his prison, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh recalls how his life unravelled. "There was no question of me getting a lawyer to represent me in the case; in fact I was not even able to speak on my own defence."

The 23-year-old student, whose death sentence for downloading a report on women's rights from the internet has become an international cause célèbre, was speaking to The Independent at his jail in Mazar-i-Sharif – the first time the outside world has heard his own account of his shattering experience. In a voice soft, somewhat hesitant, he said: "The judges had made up their mind about the case without me. The way they talked to me, looked at me, was the way they look at a condemned man. I wanted to say 'this is wrong, please listen to me', but I was given no chance to explain."

For Mr Kambaksh the four-minute hearing has led to four months of incarceration, sharing a 10 by 12 metre cell with 34 others -- murderers, robbers and terrorists – and having the threat of execution constantly hanging over him. His fate appeared sealed when the Afghan senate passed a motion, proposed by Sibghatullkah Mojeddeid, a key ally of the President Hamid Karzai, confirming the death sentence, although this was later withdrawn after domestic and international protests.

I spoke to Mr Kambaksh at Balkh prison, under the watchful eyes of the warders in their olive green Russian-era uniforms. Here 360 prisoners are packed into a facility for 200, in conditions even the Afghan prison authorities acknowledge are "unacceptable". The inmates, who include 22 women, many convicted of deserting their husbands and adultery, sit around with the forlorn demeanour of those caught up in a vast bureaucratic system with little chance of an early exit.

Since The Independent exposed the case of Mr Kambaksh, eminent public figures such as the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. and Britain's Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, have lobbied Mr Karzai to reprieve him. A petition launched by this newspaper calling for justice for Mr Kambaksh has gathered nearly 90,000 signatures.

Standing outside his cell, Mr Kambaksh looked pale and tired, hunched into his brown leather jacket over a dusty white shalwar kameez against the cold, cutting wind of the northern mountains. He had, in the past, been attacked by fundamentalist prisoners at the instigation of a guard who had said he was a heretic, but the intimidation has tailed off in recent weeks. "I am very thankful for what The Independent has done and the publicity in this case. Most of my fellow prisoners know now that I had not done anything so terrible to deserve this, and they have supported me. Some of the guards have also been kind.

"There are still some extremists who insult me, but I am afraid they are the kind who will not change their minds."

Mr Kambaksh's ordeal began in mid- October after the downloading of the document about Islam and women's rights from an Iranian website. He was questioned first by some teachers of religion from the university where he is a student of journalism.

"They said that some other students had said that I had written the article myself. Of course I denied this, I also asked them who these other students were, but they would not give me the names. They have since repeated these accusations, but they have never told me who these students are. I do not know if they exist ..." His voice trailed off as a guard came and stood listening to him. Not all believe in Mr Kambaksh's innocence.

On 27 October he was arrested at the offices of Jahan-e-Naw, a newspaper for which he had carried out reporting assignments. "It was about 10 in the morning. They told me that one of the directors of the NDS [the Afghan national intelligence service] wanted to see me. I was taken to a police station and sat around until 3 o'clock when they said they were arresting me over the website entry. When I protested they said they were doing this for my own safety, otherwise I may be killed."

Mr Kambaksh received visits from his family in the weeks which followed but says that he was not allowed any access to a lawyer. "My family were upset, my father is so worried, I have seen him age in the last few months. I keep telling them to be strong."

On 6 December he was brought before a court in Mazar where the charges against him, accusing him of blasphemy and breaching other tenets of Islamic law, were read out. But then the proceedings concluded without any evidence being presented before the court.

The next hearing, on 12 January, was cancelled after Mr Kambaksh became ill. He arrived at the court at the next session, on 22 January expecting a date to be set for the trial, only to hear numbing news. "They normally sit for just a few hours in the afternoon. I was taken into the court just before it shut at 4 o'clock. There were three judges and a prosecutor and some details of the case were repeated. One of the judges then said to me that I have been found guilty and the sentence was death. I tried to argue, but, as I said, they talked to me like a criminal, they just said I would be taken back to the prison.

"I was totally shocked. Afterwards I sat and tried to calculate just how long they had taken to judge my case. I thought at first it was three minutes, but then I worked out it was four. That was it, I have been in prison ever since. All I can hope now is that something can be done at the appeal. I would really like the appeal to be heard in Kabul, I think I will get a better hearing there."

Following the international outcry over the case, and the campaign by Mr Kambaksh's supporters, Afghanistan's Supreme Court has said that the appeal may take place at Kabul, away from local justice in Mazar, and that the hearing this time would be in the open. Justice Bahahuddin Baha also stated that the student would have the right to legal representation.

"I think if I get to put over my point of view then the judges will see I have done nothing wrong. But then I was entitled under the constitution to have a lawyer and put my defence the last time and that did not happen. I have heard that President Karzai has taken an interest in my case. He can reprieve me, but I do not know what kind of pressure he is under."

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