Afghanistan's President has promised justice for Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, raising hopes that the condemned student journalist will be freed.
At a joint press conference with the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who arrived in Afghanistan on a previously unannounced visit, President Hamid Karzai vowed: "Justice will be done." It was the first time that the President has spoken publicly about the 23-year-old's plight, which sparked outrage around the world, after The Independent launched a petition to save him last week. Mr Kambaksh was sentenced to death by an Islamic court for downloading an article about women's rights, which poked fun at Islam by questioning why men are allowed four spouses, but women are not.
Asked about the case by The Independent, Mr Karzai said he had talked it over with the US and British officials, who have both expressed concerns over Mr Kambaksh's fate.
His family claim the case was heard in secret and he was not allowed a lawyer.
Mr Karzai insisted it was a matter for his country's courts to deal with. He said: "This is an issue that our judicial system is handling. I can assure you, that at the end of the day, justice will be done in the right way."
His remarks suggest he is not planning to use his executive powers to intervene at this stage, but that he may yet pardon Mr Kambaksh if the sentence is upheld by Afghanistan's supreme court. Under Afghan law the President has to sign off on a death sentence before it can be carried out.
Conservative clerics and tribal elders urged the government yesterday not to overturn the death penalty. More than 100 religious and tribal leaders attended a rally in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, in support of the verdict. The province, in eastern Afghanistan, borders Pakistan's tribal belt, which nurtured many of Afghanistan's hardline mullahs.
Khaliq Daad, head of the Islamic council of Paktia, said Mr Kambaksh had "humiliated" Islam. He said: "Kambaksh made the Afghan people very upset. It was against the clerics and Islam. He has humiliated Islam. We want the Afghan President to support the court's decision."
If the verdict is upheld Mr Karzai may be forced to choose between the mullahs, who passed the sentence, and the international community, which opposes it.
Zia Bumia, president of the Committee to Protect Afghan Journalists, said the courts had been hijacked by Mr Karzai's enemies to split him between the religious conservatives and his American backers.
Ms Rice has said the case touched "international norms that need to be respected". More than 74,000 people have signed The Independent's online petition to lift the death sentence against Mr Kambaksh. There is also widespread support for his case within Afghanistan, where protesters in the capital, Kabul, staged a protest march against his sentence.
But Kabul, with its shopping malls and internet cafes, is a world away from the mud homes and subsistence farms of rural Afghanistan, where the mullahs hold sway.
Mr Miliband and Ms Rice flew to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan yesterday, the heart of the Taliban insurgency, but did not leave the heavily guarded airport where they met Nato commanders and troops before travelling to Kabul.
The talks with Mr Karzai, the first high-level contact between the three countries since he blocked the appointment of Lord Ashdown as the UN's "super envoy", provided an opportunity to patch up their faltering relations at a time of crisis for Nato forces in Afghanistan.
The Afghan President sought to play down the differences, saying he was "personally upset" that Lord Ashdown was not coming to Kabul. He also called Gordon Brown "a very, exceptionally good man", and he said he was misquoted in British press reports that British troops had made things worse in Helmand.
But Mr Miliband did not let the Afghan leader off the hook. He pointed out that Britain and Afghanistan have "mutual responsibilities", stressed the need to "support each other" and called on Mr Karzai to clean up his administration.
The Foreign Secretary said: "We look forward to the work your government is going to do, at national, regional and local level to help build the structure of clean and effective government, that the Afghans have the right to see."
Nato countries tried yesterday to resolve their differences over burden-sharing in Afghanistan.
Robert Gates, the USDefence Secretary, infuriated Germany by sending what was described as an "unusually stern" letter to his German counterpart in the drive to increase the number of troops in the dangerous southern sector of Afghanistan, where UK, Canadian, Danish and Dutch troops are based.
But no new offers were confirmed at a meeting of defence ministers in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. The French government said it was considering sending more troops but did not confirm press reports that 700 paratroopers could be deployed to the south.
Mr Gates had warned of a two-tier Nato on Wednesday, in which he said some members were prepared to "fight and die" and others were not.
"I think we are doing our bit fully in Afghanistan," the German Defence Minister, Franz Josef Jung, said curtly. He noted that Germany's 3,000-plus contingent, based in the relatively quiet north of the country and Kabul, was the third largest in Afghanistan.
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