The UN's most senior human rights official has added her clout to the international campaign being waged to save the life of the jailed Afghan student journalist Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, it emerged yesterday.
It is understood that Louise Arbour, the UN high commissioner for human rights, wrote to senior Afghan officials last weekend, including President Hamid Karzai, concerning the fate of Mr Kambaksh, who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy after distributing a document from the internet that commented on Koranic verses about women's rights. Her Geneva-based staff did not provide details on her letter, apparently seeking to avoid publicity for fear that the mounting public pressure on the Afghan president to pardon Mr Kambaksh might prove counter-productive.
Mr Karzai has been inundated by appeals from the UN, human rights groups and journalists to spare Mr Kambaksh. The Independent's online petition to save him, launched last week, had registered more than 56,000 signatures by last night.
But diplomatic sources cautioned that following the Senate's sudden U-turn last week in which it retracted its endorsement of the death sentence and affirmed Mr Kambaksh's right to due process through the courts, the president may not wish to be seen to bow to outside pressure at a critical time in his relations with the West.
Relations are strained after Mr Karzai expelled two senior diplomats, criticised "mistakes" by Britain in Helmand province and blocked Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Harmdon's role as a UN "super envoy". The Independent revealed yesterday that the discovery of secret UK plans to provide military training for 2,000 former Taliban fighters, foiled by Afghan secret police in December, lay behind the expulsion of the two diplomats.
Now it has emerged that a pilot scheme has been operating for more than a month in a key district in Helmand. Britain is paying to train dozens of former insurgents at a series of "vocational institutes" in Gereshk, the district governor said. Hajji Abdul Manaf Khan said the programme provides classes in tailoring, carpentry, literacy, and English for reconciled Taliban fighters and their families.
But he refused to comment on claims by officials in Kabul that the men were also being trained to fight as part of a local defence force.
A spokesman for the British embassy in Kabul said Britain was involved in efforts to "reach out" to the Taliban. But he stressed those efforts were Afghan-led. "All reconciliation work is in support of, and fully briefed to, the Afghan government," the spokesman said. He added: "We support Afghan-led efforts to reach out to insurgent elements who no longer want to continue armed opposition."
Mr Khan said the vocational classes gave people a reason not to take up arms. He said: "Most people joined the fighting because there were no jobs and they need to feed their families. We want the British to expand the programme to the rest of Helmand where there is war."
He added: "Most people here have had no access to schools or university. If you learn a profession you can keep your family alive. It is a good effort started by the British."
More than 56,000 readers of The Independent have now joined the campaign to save Sayed Pervez Kambaksh. But the fate of the student whose only crime was to read about women's rights remains uncertain, so it is vital to keep up the pressure.
You can add your voice to the campaign by urging the Foreign Office to put all possible pressure on the Afghan government to spare his life. Sign our petition at www.independent.co.uk/petition