Leading article: Freedom for Pervez, but a sobering reminder of tyranny

A welcome outcome to a campaign that mobilised opinion worldwide

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The news that the imprisoned Afghan student Sayed Pervez Kambaksh is now a free man is very welcome. Kambaksh, after all, was arrested in October 2007 for a crime that no citizen of a democratic state would consider an offence. All he did was to download some articles on the treatment of women in the Islamic world and distribute them among his colleagues at his university in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

For this misdemeanour he was denounced by the local religious zealots and sentenced to death. After several months spent on death row in the grimmest conditions imaginable, an appeal resulted in the sentence being commuted to 20 years. Now we are pleased to report that he has been secretly pardoned and spirited out of the country to a safe place somewhere in Europe.

The Independent was the first newspaper in Britain to report this whole appalling business in January last year. Since then more than 100,000 people have subsequently signed our petition calling on the Foreign Office to exert pressure on the authorities in Kabul to release Mr Kambaksh and a host of organisations has become involved in the young student's plight. The United Nations criticised the handling of the trial. The European Parliament condemned the sentence. Human rights organisations, such as PEN, adopted the cause. The then US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was persuaded to take up the matter personally with the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai.

Some credit should go to Afghanistan's much criticised leader for the release of Pervez Kambaksh. Mr Karzai faced a dilemma. He was subjected to vehement criticism from Western politicians and civil society groups for allowing the student to be imprisoned in the first place. But he also received savage attacks at home from conservatives for allegedly showing too much readiness to bow to Western pressure on the issue. Whatever political calculations lay behind his final decision, he did the right thing in permitting this man to leave.

The fact that Mr Kambaksh will probably spend the rest of his life outside Afghanistan, possibly under a new name, however, is a sobering reminder that this is not an episode with an entirely happy ending. It is indeed a depressing reflection on the state of Afghanistan eight years after Nato forces intervened to topple the Taliban government that a young man has had to flee the country for the "crime" of trying to engage people in a discussion on the dismal state of women's rights.

Following shortly after Mr Karzai's decision to approve a controversial law that permits men to refuse their wives food or money if they deny them sex, it might suggest to some people that women's rights have not improved at all since the Taliban were forced from Kabul. This verdict is too harsh. We should not forget that no girls were allowed any kind of education under the Taliban while today a couple of million girls are at school. There has been a start.

Meanwhile, the Kambaksh case once again reminds us that when public opinion is mobilised throughout the world behind a good cause, it can – just occasionally – force politicians to change their minds. For that we should be grateful.

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