UN Questions Afghan Journal Arrests Over Blasphemy

The United Nations on Thursday questioned the arrest of two journalists who wrote articles judged by Afghan authorities to be blasphemous in this deeply conservative Islamic country.

Afghan officials said on Wednesday the Aftaab weekly had been banned and its chief editor, Mir Hussein Mehdavi, arrested.

Abdul Hamid Mubariz, deputy information and culture minister, told Reuters on Thursday that the second person arrested was Ali Reza, an Iranian national living in Kabul.

``UNAMA (U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission have been looking into the situation since the evening of the June 17 when we learned of the arrests of these two journalists,'' a U.N. spokesman said.

Manoel de Almeida e Silva said both groups were concerned that the arrests were ordered before a written warrant had been issued, as would normally be required.

``While investigation may be justified, grounds for arrest are not clear,'' he said.

``The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and UNAMA visited the two journalists at the Kabul detention center, and both seemed to be in good condition,'' Silva added.

He said the arrests were carried out by police on the orders of the Attorney-General's office.

An English translation of the press law was shown to reporters. It prohibits subjects that ``offend Islam,'' as well as those that are deemed obscene and morally corrupt.

Mubariz said several articles in Aftaab's latest edition were ``sacrilegious.'' One of the offending phrases was: ``Religion plus governance is equal to despotism,'' he said.

Issues involving Islam are highly sensitive in Afghanistan, where the hardline Taliban regime imposed strict sharia laws until it was ousted by a U.S.-led military campaign in late 2001.