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Set Pervez free: Rice joins calls to save student

The world's most powerful woman has added her voice to the campaign to save the life of Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the Afghan student journalist sentenced to death for downloading material on women's rights from the internet.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, promised yesterday to raise his case personally with the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, which would significantly raise the international pressure for his release.

Ms Rice, who was in London for talks with Gordon Brown and David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, on the West's Afghanistan strategy said: "I do think that the Afghans understand that there are some international norms that need to be respected. Of course, one has national laws and they're national laws that are in accordance with traditions and religious practice. But there are international norms, and I'll certainly talk to President Karzai about this case."

About 69,000 people have signed The Independent's petition to save Mr Kambaksh, who was sentenced to death under Afghanistan's strict blasphemy laws after distributing to his journalism class a document from the internet that commented on Koranic verses about women's rights. His conviction by an Islamic courthas caused worldwide outrage since it was first highlighted in The Independent last week.

Asked why the United States government had not spoken out over Mr Kambaksh's plight – especially after it won a stay of execution for a man who converted to Christianity in the country in 2006 – Ms Rice replied: "I'll certainly raise the case with President Karzai. This is a young democracy and I think it won't surprise you that we are not supportive of everything that comes up through the judicial system in Afghanistan."

Ms Rice also hinted that Mr Karzai was aware of the growing furore over the student journalist's plight and that he may be willing to use his power of presidential pardon to rescind the death sentence. However, Afghan officials said that the case must first exhaust the judicial process, in line with the country's laws.

But the support of Ms Rice, who is such a high-profile figure and is a public ally of President Karzai, for Mr Kambaksh's case may well be the best chance the student journalist has of avoiding execution. However, Mr Karzai's relations with the West are somewhat fraught at present, and he may not wish to be seen to bow to Western demands.

In 2006, Ms Rice personally lobbied Mr Karzai over a death sentence that had been passed on a 41-year-old man, Abdur Rahman, for converting to Christianity. At the time, she urged the Afghan President to reconsider the sentence "in the strongest terms" and eventually, following a further personal appeal from President George Bush, Mr Karzai used his presidential pardon.

Ms Rice is the most senior official to speak out about Mr Kambaksh. The UN's most senior human rights official, Louise Arbour, added to the international campaign by writing to senior Afghan officials last weekend, "reminding them of their responsibilities" under the country's constitution, which enshrines freedom of speech.

In Britain, Mr Miliband, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, and William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, have all backed the campaign.

But in contrast to the US Secretary of State's stated intention to personally intervene, there was still no confirmation from the Foreign Office yesterday as to whether Mr Miliband intended to raise Mr Kambaksh's case directly with the Afghan President.

The Foreign Secretary has said: "We are opposed to the death penalty in all cases and believe that freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of a democratic society. We have raised the case as members of the EU and with the UN, and we support strongly the UN Special Representative's call for a review of the case."

In recent days, there have been signs that the campaign is producing results. There was a dramatic volte-face by the Afghan senate, which retracted its endorsement of the death sentence last week. A senior Afghan official told The Independent this week that Afghanistan's judicial system will "avoid" the death sentence.

But campaigners say Mr Kambaksh's position remains as precarious as ever because Mr Karzai is under considerable pressure from inside Afghanistan, where the limits of free speech are defined within Sharia law.

Under Afghanistan's new constitution, the President is able to pardon condemned prisoners if their sentence is upheld by the Supreme Court. But privately, government sources have hinted that President Karzai would prefer to see the verdict overruled by an appeal court before it reaches his office.

Life in jail is hell, day after day, says Pervez

While the international campaign to free Sayed Pervez Kambaksh grows, life in jail for the 23-year-old student is, according to his family, "nothing but enduring hell day after day".

He shares a cell meant for four people with 30 others at the prison in Balkh province where he has been held for more than three months. In that time he has been attacked by Taliban prisoners who have been told by officials that Mr Kambaksh is guilty of blasphemy. His food has been contaminated by guards, he has lost weight, and is traumatised.

"We are very grateful for all those who are trying to help Pervez, especially The Independent, for what they have done. We tell him about it on visits to the prison and it gives him hope," said his brother Yaqub Ibrahimi. "But in the meantime things are really bad where he is. He shares a cell with murderers, robbers, drug smugglers, people smugglers and terrorists. It is a terrible situation and he is afraid.

"There are Taliban prisoners in the prison and they were told that Pervez has turned his back on Islam and spoken against the Prophet. That is not true, of course, that is a lie. But these people came and attacked him. Fortunately he was not badly hurt, but mentally it has been very bad."

Mr Kambaksh, a student of journalism, has tried to explain to his fellow inmates that he is not guilty of the "crimes" he has been accused of, said his brother, and most believe him. But he remains under threat from other prisoners and guards in this deeply religious country, where apostasy is regarded by many as deserving execution.

Yaqub Ibrahimi has been on the receiving end of official retribution and is now living at a secret address away from his home town. As a journalist he had written a series of articles in which he accused public figures, including an MP, of atrocities. Mr Ibrahimi had to be very careful when he visited his brother in prison, making sure that he was unannounced.

"I am afraid this is the situation in Afghan-istan," said Mr Ibrahimi. "A lot of the gains we made after the Taliban fell have now gone. We have very powerful people who want to impose a version of religion which we thought we had managed to leave behind.

"What has happened to Pervez has become known because The Independent took up his case. That has given a chance to see that there is justice and he is freed. But we really do not know what will happen."

The Afghan senate had backed the death sentence on Mr Kambaksh. However, it withdrew the ruling last week. The case has now returned to the courts, leaving Mr Kambaksh with the right to appeal. "President Karzai can pardon my brother and that is what we are praying he will do," said Mr Ibrahimi.

Kim Sengupta

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