Free at last: Student in hiding after Karzai's intervention

Twenty months on, and with more than 100,000 signatures from Independent readers seeking his release, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the Afghan student sentenced to death for the ‘crime’ of downloading information on women's rights, is free

Kim Sengupta
Monday 07 September 2009 00:00 BST

Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the student sentenced to death in Afghanistan for trying to promote women's rights, has been freed from prison. The Independent has learned that he is now living outside the country after being secretly pardoned by President Karzai.

The fate of the 24-year-old trainee journalist became an international cause célèbre after his plight was revealed by this newspaper. A petition to secure justice gathered more than 100,000 signatures and the Afghan government came under intense pressure from the international community to release him.

Mr Kambaksh was moved from his cell in Kabul's main prison a fortnight ago and kept at a secure location for a few days before being flown out of the country. Prior to his departure, he spoke of how his relief was mixed with deep regret at knowing he was unlikely to see his family or country again.

Only a handful of people were aware of the intensive diplomatic negotiations which took place behind the scenes to get Mr Kambaksh out of jail, details of which cannot be revealed to protect those, Afghans and foreigners, who were involved.

Hardline Islamists, including a number of political figures close to the government of President Karzai, have repeatedly called for Mr Kambaksh's execution and were fiercely critical when an appeal court reduced the original death sentence to 20 years' imprisonment. One senior diplomatic source said: "The danger is very real and we are well aware that there will be a reaction when it becomes clear that Pervez had gone. It was imperative he was safely out of the way before attempts could be made to block that."

The Afghan president has been repeatedly told that the continuing incarceration of the trainee journalist damaged the credibility of his already-tarnished administration. His release however, comes at a particularly volatile time in Afghanistan with bitter recriminations and threats of violence following a disputed election.

The Kambaksh case has highlighted how human rights gains have been eroded since the fall of the Taliban eight years ago. Although Mr Kambaksh has found refuge thousands of miles away, he will have to live the rest of his life in fear of retribution.

According to senior officials Mr Karzai has been well aware of how Mr Kambaksh's case was reinforcing the negative image of his country abroad but also had to be mindful of not being seen to be bowing to Western pressure. Now his role in rectifying something which was widely seen as a miscarriage of justice will be lauded by the West, human rights groups and progressive opinion in Afghanistan. But he will face opposition from religious conservatives, which may prove electorally costly if there is a second-round run off at the polls.

Mr Kambaksh was originally arrested in October 2007 after some students and staff at his university in Mazar-i-Sharif in the north of the country accused him of disseminating material on women's rights which "insulted Islam". He was charged with blasphemy and sentenced to death at a trial three months later. He told The Independent from his cell in Balkh prison that a "confession" had been beaten out of him and he had not been allowed legal representation or allowed to speak during the four-minute hearing behind closed doors.

However, international pressure continued behind closed doors, and the student was moved to a jail in Kabul to appeal against his conviction. The case against him appeared to be crumbling with a number of prosecution witnesses withdrawing their testimony. Another plank of the case, that he had written part of the downloaded internet report himself, appeared to collapse after The Independent tracked down the real author, an Iranian émigré woman living in Europe.

In October last year Afghanistan's supreme court set aside the death sentence but ruled he must serve at least 20 years in prison. Diplomatic pressure continued behind closed doors and finally came to fruition with the signing of an "amnesty" by President Karzai.

* Gordon Brown last night announced plans for an international summit on Afghanistan’s future. The proposals were set out in a letter to the UN with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr Brown proposed the conference afterthe Afghan election result is settled.

The summit will focus on the “Afghanisation” of the country, including faster training of its armed forces and police. Britain would offer to host the meeting.

People power: The Independent's campaign

The Independent launched its campaign to secure justice for Pervez Kambaksh the day after he was condemned to death in January 2008. Within 24 hours President Hamid Karzai was inundated with appeals while more than 13,500 Independent readers signed our petition. During a debate in the House of Commons David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, and William Hague, Shadow Foreign Secretary all spoke out. Louise Arbour, the UN commissioner for Human Rights, and the Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer also urged Afghanistan to reconsider the case. On 6 February 2008, the then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice intervened. Two days later Mr Karzai said: "Justice will be done". By May 2008, 100,000 people had signed the petition. Five months later the death sentence was quashed.

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