Islamists threaten to murder lawyer defending Pervez

Jerome Starkey
Friday 01 August 2008 00:00 BST

The Afghan lawyer defending a journalist on death row in Kabul has been bombarded with death threats urging him to drop the case.

Islamic extremists repeatedly threatened to murder Afzal Nooristani after he agreed to defend Sayed Pervez Kambaksh in his high-profile appeal.

The 23-year-old student writer was sentenced to death for circulating an article about women's rights. He was tried in a closed court, and denied a defence lawyer. His case has sparked worldwide protests.

In Afghanistan, conservative clerics have led rallies endorsing his conviction, while others have marched for his release. Most lawyers were too afraid to take his case.

"I received phone calls threatening to kill me," said Mr Nooristani. "I answered two of them and got lots of missed calls. But I told them they could do what they like. It didn't stop me taking the case."

More than 100,000 people have signed an online Independent petition demanding justice for Mr Kambaksh. The United Nations' high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, have all called for justice to be done.

But speaking at the inaugural meeting of the Afghan Bar Association yesterday, Mr Nooristani warned that the appeal was already deeply flawed, and he said it is almost impossible for Mr Kambaksh to get a fair trial.

"There's no concrete evidence against him, but still the court insists on keeping him in jail and postponing the trial," he said.

Mr Kambaksh was moved to Kabul, from his local jail in Mazar-e Sharif, to improve his chances of a fair trial. But the case has been postponed indefinitely following a brief court appearance in May.

"Even in Kabul the judge played the role of the prosecution. Now the court has to set a date for the trial but we haven't received anything for months," Mr Nooristani added.

Most of Afghanistan's 580 lawyers attended the Bar Association meeting, highlighting the desperate shortage of legal professionals in a nation of more than 25 million. Most court proceedings take place without defence lawyers. Organisers hope the new association will improve justice but admit it could take years.

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