Page last updated at 10:51 GMT, Tuesday, 9 September 2008 11:51 UK

Blasphemy case shows Afghan divide

Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

Sayed Pervez Kambaksh
Sayed Pervez Kambaksh's sentence has generated much controversy

In Kabul's grim and crowded central prison, a 23-year-old student from northern Afghanistan spends each day wondering if and when he will be put to death.

Sayed Pervez Kambaksh was sentenced in January, in five minutes, at a local court in Mazar-e-Sharif, with no legal representation to defend charges of blasphemy after reports he had downloaded from the internet un-Islamic material on women's rights.

"I don't know what will happen to me," he said from the prison office where we were allowed half an hour to interview him.

"My trial was unfair from the beginning. From day one, they have been treating me very harshly as a criminal, not a suspect, and I don't know who has done this to me.

"My case has been politicised - my lawyer has been threatened. I have lost nine months of my life now in four prisons," he said.

'Deviated from religion'

There is an appeals process but his family have little faith in it - there have been many delays and little information.

Enayatullah Baleegh speaks in a mosque
Enayatullah Baleegh says Sayed Pervez Kambaksh must be executed

The international community has raised the issue and asked for Sayed Pervez Kambaksh to be pardoned or released, but the case is a glaring example of the conflict between conservative Islam and the liberal Western views of Afghanistan's international backers.

"Kambaksh has deviated from religion, and Islam orders that he must be executed," said Enayatullah Baleegh, a member of the Islamic ulema council and a popular and well-respected Muslim scholar.

"The courts of Afghanistan, as per the constitution, have sentenced him to death and we certify this 100%," he said.

This is not the voice of an extremist minority, Enayatullah Baleegh delivers his religious guidance at one of Kabul's main mosques and on state-run television every week.

He advised against us visiting the mosque to hear his message at Friday prayers, as he said some of those present might object to our presence.

But an Afghan BBC cameraman recorded the speech a few days before the country's national day, and Mr Baleegh began with a history lesson.

"The English were cruel and invaded Afghanistan, but the brave people of this country repulsed the British forces with the power of their strong belief in Allah," he said.

"Islam is the religion of peace, but if a human attacks you and invades your land the Koran has another order.

"It says when the infidel attacks you, you should not think yourself weak... you should behead them... you should hold them hostage and should intensify the war and break their morale."

Complex mix

It's not what the UK, or other countries pumping in money to help rebuild Afghanistan, will want to hear from influential mullahs instructing the people in the capital city.

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai. Photo: July 2008
President Karzai has to approve any death sentence

But it goes a long way to illustrate the pressures on President Hamid Karzai, who is keen to portray himself as independent from the international community on which he depends.

Afghanistan has been a fiercely conservative Islamic country for centuries - from well before the Taleban imposed their interpretation of how people should live.

"President Karzai is a deeply conservative Pashtun who understands the traditions - his wife never appears in public and he prays five times a day," said Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador to Afghanistan.

"He understands perhaps better than anyone that one of his jobs is to reconcile these traditions - the call for modernism, the call for openness and at the same time respect for sincerely and devoutly-held religious traditions.

"In many ways we need to understand that the Taleban are the violent expression of an authentic and legitimate strain of deeply conservative, religious Pashtun nationalism that needs to be accommodated in any enduring political settlement in this country," Sir Sherard said.

The balance is not easy to achieve - the Bonn conference in late 2001 created the complex mix when it agreed on a constitution combining Western and Sharia law.

It's unlikely Sayed Pervez Kambaksh will be put to death, but the way his case is handled is incredibly sensitive and important for President Karzai to get right and he could be in prison a while longer.

It's also a reminder that dissatisfaction over progress in Afghanistan, particularly with justice and security, will only encourage the voices of extremism and conservatism.


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