The condemned student journalist Sayed Pervez Kambaksh will not face execution, a senior government official in Afghanistan indicated yesterday.
A ministerial aide, Najib Manalai, insisted: "I am not worried for his life. I'm sure Afghanistan's justice system will find the best way to avoid this sentence."
It was the clearest indication yet that the 23-year-old will have his death penalty revoked amid mounting international pressure on the Afghan authorities.
Mr Kambaksh was condemned to die by an Islamic court for insulting Islam. He was found guilty under sharia law after he distributed articles from the internet on women's rights at Balkh university in northern Afghanistan, an act he claims was aimed at provoking debate. His family say he was not allowed a defence lawyer and the trial was in secret.
The verdict, briefly endorsed by the Afghan senate before it retracted its opinion, caused international protests. More than 63,000 people have signed an Independent petition urging the Foreign Office to put all possible pressure on the Afghan government to prevent the execution. The United Nations' senior human rights advocate, Louise Arbour, has written to the President and his top officials, "reminding them of their responsibilities" under the country's constitution, which enshrines freedom of speech. President Hamid Karzai's staff said he had been inundated by appeals from pressure groups across the globe to pardon the student journalist.
The President is "concerned" about the case and is "watching the situation very closely", his spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, said. But he added: "There is a judicial process ongoing."
Mr Manalai is the senior adviser in Afghanistan's Culture Ministry, which is in charge of arbitrating free speech disputes in the media. He condemned the student writer but maintained it was very unlikely he would face the gallows.
He said: "He cannot be defended in any way for what he has done. He was provoking trouble. He was insulting Islam's prophet. This is one of the biggest offences you can make. In Afghan law it is a capital offence. Islamic law allows the death penalty.
"But there's a saying of the Prophet, that you had better avoid applying a penalty because it is better to have someone guilty who has not been punished, than have someone not guilty who has been punished. One court has condemned him, but this is only the first step. We have three stages of justice. I am not worried for his life."
The President can pardon death-row 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.
Afghanistan's constitution incorporates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines free speech, and sharia law, which prohibits criticising the Prophet Mohamed. But Mr Manalai insisted that free speech can exist in Afghanistan within the confines of Islamic law.
He said: "Every country has its own limits on freedom. In Afghanistan, our limitations on freedom of speech are within the framework of sharia law." He compared those restrictions to European laws against Holocaust denial. He said: "European people have the right to protect their opinions about ideas which are supposed to be dangerous for their civilisation. We have the same conditions. We have sharia law."
But some analysts believe Mr Kambaksh is really a victim of complex political manoeuvring between Afghanistan's warlords and the President. Zia Bumia, head of the Committee to Protect Afghan Journalists, said some officials believe the Islamic court was hijacked by the President's enemies to force him to choose between the mullahs, who passed the death sentence, and the international community, which opposes it.
"It was a simple case that became a political issue," he said. "He [Mr Kambaksh] just printed an article but they are calling him an infidel. The religious conservatives are getting stronger day by day, because political figures, who are not interested in religion, are building their relations with conservative groups to serve their own interests. Islam is being used as political game. To get something you just use the name of religion."
The news had a cautious welcome in London. Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "This affair raises serious questions about the direction Afghanistan is heading. It should not require international condemnation to prevent such a gross injustice."
William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "I hope no other Afghan citizen will be put through a similar experience. Moving towards the rule of law is a vital part of building peace in Afghanistan."
How you can save Pervez
The Independent campaign to save Sayed Pervez Kambaksh has now attracted more than 63,000 signatures – and the pressure appears to be working.
But the fate of the student whose only crime was to download an article on women's rights remains in doubt. So 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 e-petition at www.independent.co.uk/petition
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