Afghan Court Gives Editor 2-Year Term for Blasphemy

Kabul, Afghanistan - or the first time since the fall of the Taliban's Islamic government four years ago, a journalist has been convicted by a Kabul court under the country's blasphemy laws.

Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, the editor of a monthly magazine for women called Women's Rights, was sentenced Saturday to two years in prison by the primary court in Kabul. The sentence will automatically go to appeal.

The sentencing came after a strenuous battle between Kabul's conservative judges, led by members of the Supreme Court, and the liberal minister of information and culture, Sayed Makhdum Raheen, and revealed the strains between moderates and conservatives in the government of President Hamid Karzai.

The prosecutor called for the death penalty, accusing the editor of apostasy, the abandonment of the faith, so the sentence appeared to have been a compromise. But it was a reminder that Afghanistan is still ruled by the Islamic legal code, Shariah, and that on issues of religion, conservatives are determined to enforce it.

"He could not provide a defense against the prosecutor and was found guilty of disrespecting Islamic law and was convicted to two years' imprisonment," said Ansarullah Maulavizada, chief of the public security tribunal in charge of the case.

He contended that the magazine had run two articles in its latest issue about apostasy that violated the law by saying that while apostasy was taboo, it was not a crime under Islam. The authorities apparently ordered the issue removed from the newsstands.

Mr. Raheen, the information and culture minister, said, however, that the court had bypassed a commission that was supposed to make recommendations in cases involving the news media and that the commission had found no blasphemy after examining the articles.

Mr. Nasab, an Afghan who lived in Iran as a refugee, is an Islamic scholar and has degrees from more than one Islamic university there, Mr. Raheen said. He was arrested early this month and had won two postponements, one to find a lawyer and a second after he said he was ill.

Mr. Nasab was shown on the Afghan commercial television channel, Tolo TV, at the trial. "I do not accept the decision of the court," he said. He said he did not have a lawyer, although it was unclear whether he had chosen not to hire a lawyer or had not been able to find one.

Mr. Maulavizada said Saturday that Mr. Nasab had been given enough time to prepare.

Mr. Raheen had intervened in the case, recommending leniency.

Under a new law governing the news media, put into effect under Mr. Karzai, the Commission for Investigating Media-Related Offenses has been charged with reviewing cases and advising the court. The commission's recommendations are not binding.

"This procedure was not legal at all - to send someone to jail like that," Mr. Raheen said when Mr. Nasab was arrested.

To emphasize that point, Mr. Raheen convened a meeting of the group on Wednesday. The commission interviewed Mr. Nasab and examined the two articles in question, one written by Mr. Nasab and one by an Iranian author.

"We found there was no blasphemy in the articles at all," Mr. Raheen said in an interview. "We believe it was a media mistake, that the way he has explained things creates misunderstanding, so we gave him advice to be more careful so as not to create misunderstanding."

He added that the court's anger had been directed against the article written by the Iranian, and that the commission had recommended the dismissal of Mr. Nasab as editor because his inexperience had led him to publish something that resulted in a misunderstanding.

The commission includes two religious scholars, one of them a former Supreme Court judge; a member of the Academy of Sciences; two independent professional journalists; the journalism dean of Kabul University; and a member of the human rights commission, Mr. Raheen said.

The case also has political overtones, since Mr. Nasab, a Shiite who had been an unsuccessful candidate in the parliamentary elections in September, had already come in conflict with senior, conservative Shiite clerics during the campaign, said Robert Kluyver, a representative of the Open Society Institute in Afghanistan.

The magazine "has been published for a number of years now, and although its articles are quite critical, they are well researched and not defamatory," Mr. Kluyver said in an e-mail message about the case. The religious issues addressed in the articles in question, and the scholarly way they were addressed, would be common in any other Islamic country, including Iran, he said.

This is not the first time that accusations of blasphemy have been raised against editors and writers under Mr. Karzai's government, but until now Mr. Raheen has managed to discourage convictions by the conservative judges and members of the Supreme Court.

"I don't want any kind of damage to the freedom of speech," he said. "I have been working very hard on this."

He added, "There are always some fanatics behind these things, and they take sides very quickly."