National Post (Canada), October 27, 2003

Afghan editor forced to flee to Canada:

Target of religious law: Karzai government not committed to democracy, he says

By Jake Rupert

OTTAWA - A crusading Afghan newspaper editor whose democratic views prompted Islamic leaders in Kabul to put a bounty on his head is alive and well and living with his family in Canada after fleeing his home country.

Hussain Mahdavi, 31, his wife and his two daughters, aged seven and five months, arrived in Canada three weeks ago after a harrowing ordeal that observers say demonstrates a lack of commitment to democratic principles in the U.S.-backed transitional government of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President.

Mr. Mahdavi came to Canada after being granted emergency refugee status.

After Afghanistan's supreme court decided to try him for defaming Islam and imposed the death penalty this summer, Mr. Mahdavi was in hiding in Islamabad, Pakistan, for several weeks until the United Nations high commissioner for refugees fast-tracked his case.

Canadian government officials would not talk about Canada's role, citing concern for Mr. Mahdavi's privacy. However, Mr. Mahdavi had no such concerns as long as where he is living was not published.

"I am very happy to be in Canada," he said earlier this week through an interpreter. "This is a good country, where freedom of speech is a right.

"I feel disappointed to leave Afghanistan because we had a new government, and we had high hopes that this government would bring democracy by the people for the people, but unfortunately, this is not the case.

"If I thought it would have changed anything, I would have stayed in Kabul and died, but I hold little hope of true democracy coming to Afghanistan."

Mr. Mahdavi, editor of the Kabul weekly Aftab (The Sun), and his assistant, Ali Reza Sistany, were arrested on June 17 and charged with violating an Afghan press law prohibiting the publication of material considered defamatory to Islam. They were also charged under shariah law for offending Islam.

Aftab, which was started in March, 2002, was considered the most progressive newspaper in Afghanistan, employing an independent, objective approach to news reporting and blunt editorial opinions.

Mr. Mahdavi published several opinion pieces urging the government to move to a more secular state by separating religion and politics. In addition, he wrote and published editorials calling on the government to get rid of several current and former warlords who control important government ministries.

The paper also urged that more scholars and intellectuals be appointed to key government positions.

One of the offending phrases in his paper was: "Religion plus governance is equal to despotism." This article was headlined: "Holy Fascism."

Mr. Mahdavi offended many in Kabul by naming names of people who, in his opinion, should not be in government, accusing some of being murderers, and by pushing for a non-religious, non-military government.

This kind of journalism is unheard of in Afghanistan, said John Sifton, Afghanistan researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Following the arrests of Mr. Mahdavi and Mr. Sistany, police closed the newspaper's Kabul offices and pulled copies of the publication from newsstands.

After a week in jail and under international pressure from the UN and other groups, Mr. Mahdavi and Mr. Sistany, who has since escaped to Norway, were released by Mr. Karzai personally.

However, Mr. Karzai said the men would be tried.

"We don't consider what they have written to be the freedom of the press," Mr. Karzai told Afghan reporters after ordering the men released. "Sincerely, my opinion is that ... it was a violation of the beliefs of the Afghan people, and they shouldn't have done that."

A struggle over how they were to be tried exposed a developing rift in the transitional government's approach to legal issues and system of government.

The country's supreme court chief justice, Abdul Hadi Shinwari, regarded as a conservative who wants implementation of full Islamic law, wanted the men tried under shariah law, which would mean death if convicted.

The court's more moderate judges and others in government wanted them tried under the press law, which would mean they would lose their licence to publish if convicted.

This trial took place in early August. Mr. Mahdavi attended, and he was acquitted of offending Islam.

Later, the court's "fatwa" committee's decision to also try Mr. Mahdavi under Islamic law, and impose a death sentence, was leaked. Several Islamic clerics also pronounced a fatwa on Mr. Mahdavi.

A fatwa is a kind of religious bounty. Anyone who kills a person subject to a fatwa is rewarded in heaven.

With this news, Mr. Mahdavi decided to leave Kabul and Afghanistan immediately. He and his family went to Islamabad, Pakistan, and hid with friends until he was accepted as a refugee in Canada.

Several human rights and press-freedom organizations lobbied the United Nations to help Mr. Mahdavi get to Canada.

Abi Wright, Asia program co-ordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which lobbied on behalf of Mr. Mahdavi, said her group has monitored a deterioration of press freedom in Afghanistan for the last year.

"We've seen an increase in intimidation of journalists, attacks on journalists and suppression of speech," she said. "Mr. Mahdavi was very brave to write and publish the things he did, but he was also very controversial even with journalists in his own country."

Mr. Sifton, of Human Rights Watch, said Mr. Mahdavi's plight is an example of just how far the country is away from becoming a fully democratic nation.

"Freedom of expression is one of the keys to a democracy," he said. "Many other freedoms flow from it. If they are having problems with this, and Mr. Mahdavi's case shows this to be true, it isn't a good omen for the future."

He said the case shows just how influential Muslim clerics and judges have become in the transitional government, because the moderates could not stop the case against Mr. Mahdavi or save him from the fatwa.

Mr. Sifton said the country's draft constitution almost guarantees citizens of Afghanistan will continue to be subject to the repressive social, cultural and political control of shariah law because it gives the judiciary, led by Chief Justice Shinwari, the power to review all government legislation to make sure it conforms to Islamic law.

He said if the goal of democracy in Afghanistan is to be met, amendments must be made to narrow the areas of society shariah will be able to address.

"There has to be a clear division between this kind of court and normal courts," he said. "The case of Mr. Mahdavi shows there is no such division right now. And it's not just him. Other journalists are feeling pressure, too."

He said police and military in Kabul, and even more so outside the capital, are quelling dissent or perceived anti-Islamic opinion with threats, beatings, robberies and road checkpoint extortions.

Mr. Sifton said the situation was created when religious leaders and warlords who helped the United States overthrow the Taliban were rewarded with positions in the transitional government while retaining their military and religious positions.

They are now using whatever means they can to retain and amass power leading up to next year's planned elections.

For now, Mr. Mahdavi, who is a devout Muslim, is planning to settle his family in his new surroundings, learning English, and looking for ways to support himself. He would like to find a job in journalism but said he is willing to take any kind of work.

He also plans to start publishing Aftab again, on the Internet, which Afghans will be able to access. He said he hopes one day he will be able to return to Afghanistan, but he is doubtful.

"I think what has happened to me shows that democracy and Islam can be taken advantage of, as it has been in Afghanistan," he said. "World governments should be careful of who they are helping in my country. If they continue to act as they are, all this effort might go to waste."

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