In January 2008, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, a 23-year-old Afghan male, was sentenced to death. His crime? Promoting women's rights. The Afghan Senate confirmed the sentence on 30 January but amid international outcry, backed down a day later. Though the Afghan Supreme Court set aside the sentence, the judges still ruled that Kambaksh should serve 20 years in prison. Then in September of this year, after 20 months incarceration and a sustained campaign calling for his release, President Hamid Karzai secretly pardoned Kambaksh -- who left the country out of fear of reprisal.
Kambaksh had been a Balkh University student and part-time reporter for the Jahan-e-Naw newspaper (“New World”). His ordeal began on 27 October, 2007. That’s when he was arrested in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and charged with “blasphemy and distribution of texts defamatory of Islam. Religious teachers at the university questioned him, as some students claimed he had written a blasphemous article. Kambaksh says he merely downloaded a story from an Iranian website that asked why polygamy was all right for men but not women. Thinking this would make for an interesting discussion on women’s rights, he shared it with fellow students. Big mistake. He told a reporter from the London-based Independent newspaper, “What they call my trial lasted just four minutes in a closed court. I didn't have a lawyer, I wasn't allowed to speak, I was told I was guilty and the decision was that I was going to die.”
Foreign governments, freedom-of-the-press advocates and human rights groups, including women's organizations, continuously championed Kambaksh’s case and petitioned President Karzai for a presidential pardon. The Independent gathered more than 100,000 signatures for his release. Reporters Without Borders turned in a petition with several thousand names to a presidential adviser in Kabul. All these efforts may have led to Kambaksh's release, but they have not changed the minds of conservative religious groups in Afghanistan. Soon after the presidential amnesty was made public, Maulavi Hanif Shah Hosseini, a prominent mullah, declared: “Kambaksh committed a crime against the Koran and the people who conspired so that he escaped the law have also committed a crime.”
Kambaksh's case is a sobering reminder that there are still places around the world, where one can be sentenced to death simply for engaging in a discussion on women's rights. At such a moment, we can only reaffirm our efforts and energies towards supporting all those individuals and organizations, with the courage to speak out for women.
Anasuya Sengupta is part of the Asia-Oceania program team of the Global Fund for Women