Ali Mohaqqeq-Nasab, editor of the Kabul-based women’s magazine Hoqooq-e-Zan (Women’s Rights), was suddenly arrested on October 1. He was snatched on the street, without any warrant, summons, or prior notice (Outlook Afghanistan, October 2). He was subsequently summoned to court on October 11 to face charges of writing anti-Islamic articles, charges that, according to one judge, could carry a sentence “from a frown to execution” (Tolo TV, October 12).
Mohaqqeq-Nasab is an Islamic scholar with a law degree who has quite openly advocated for the rights of women and individuals. He is the founder and chairman of Burhan (Reason), a legal and cultural organization in Kabul.
His writings criticize the severity of some punishments meted out to individuals in an Islamic society. Specifically, he argues that everyone should be free to choose his or her religion and if one speaks against or objects to certain sections or rulings in Islamic law he or she should not be punished or charged with apostasy (Hoqooq-e-Zan, Issue #7, May 2005).
Two articles in particular provoked the ire of Shiite clerics. One criticized the severity of Islamic law, especially the punishment of 100 lashes for those found guilty of adultery. The other suggested that abandoning Islam could not be considered a crime. Afghan conservatives are currently campaigning for the adoption of penalties envisaged by Islamic Law (Sharia) (Daily Outlook Afghanistan, October 12).
His case is not the first one that involves blasphemy. Another highly publicized case was the arrest and detention of the editor of the weekly Aftab (the Sun) in 2003. The accused in that case was kept for a week, released on bail, and, fearing for his life, fled the country (Anis, October 10).
What makes Mohaqqeq-Nasab’s case rather serious is that he is accused by both Shiite and Sunni clerics, representing the minority and majority sects in Afghanistan respectively. Members of the Shiite Clergy Council brought the case to the attention of President Hamid Karzai’s religious advisor.
The media law signed by the president in March 2004 bans content deemed insulting to Islam. According to Fazel Sangcharaki, deputy minister of information and culture, “The media law also stipulates that journalists can be legally detained only with the approval of a 17-member commission of government officials and journalists.” Therefore, Mohaqqeq-Nasab’s “arrest was technically illegal,” and the editor should be remanded to the Commission for Review of Violations of the Law on Mass Media, which has the authority to have a journalist imprisoned (Pajhwok News, October 12).
According to the media freedom advocates present when Mohaqqeq-Nasab appeared in court on October 11, the defendant “was not allowed to answer charges in full, and as many as 15 judges questioned the editor, creating a chaotic atmosphere” (Committee to Protect Journalists, October 11). During his second court appearance, on October 16, the editor was brought to court in chains and shackles and his head had been shaved, outraging media advocacy groups.
The Afghan Civil Society Forum (ACSF) quotes the president’s cultural and information advisor, who said that when Karzai saw the court session on TV, he ordered the minister of information and culture “to resolve the problem in the Media Commission” (ACSF, Press Release, October 19).
Led by the minister of information and culture, the commission met with the editor and issued a statement saying, “There was no sign of blasphemy or apostasy in his conversations.” The commission asked the court to show leniency and pardon the editor (Bakhtar News Agency, October 19). However, the court handling the case later denied the request (BBC Persian.com, October 19), and later that week. Mohaqqeq-Nasab was sentenced to two years in prison.
According to Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, the arrest and trial of Ali Mohaqqeq-Nasab on blasphemy charges is a giant step backward for press freedom in Afghanistan (CPJ, October 11).
After more than two decades of war, Afghanistan has a relatively thriving press environment, at least compared with most of its neighbors. If this positive trend continues and strengthens, it will no doubt affect the region.
The conservative clergy in Iran and their Sunni counterparts in Pakistan cannot tolerate any challenge to their traditional way of thinking. Mohaqqeq-Nasab has already written an important book about the concept of the supreme religious leader (Velayat-e-Faqih) in Iran. To forestall future writings, clergy from both Shiite and Sunni sects united to convict the editor. Already there have been an outcry from various human rights and media support organizations. “President Karzai must intercede to obtain Nasab’s release and have this miscarriage of justice corrected,” the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. Similarly, the International Federation of Journalists said that it was outraged by the court’s decision and believed that the judicial process had been illegal and immoral.
However, if appeals from local and international groups fail to convince Karzai to intervene on behalf of the editor, nobody will dare to write about the religious taboos or any subject that will incur the wrath of the religious conservatives in Afghanistan. Freedom of the press in Afghanistan is now under grave threat.