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Fears for student jouranlist on Afghan death row

Afghanistan's Supreme Court has confirmed more than 100 death sentences, raising fears over the fate of Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the student journalist on death row.

Mr Kambaksh is in jail, pending an appeal, after he was sentenced to death for circulating an article which poked fun at Islam by questioning women's rights. His case sparked international protests because it was held behind closed doors, in a religious court, and he was denied a defence lawyer.

But the Supreme Court's decision to endorse so many death penalties demonstrates its willingness to execute people despite grave concerns over the country's flawed legal processes.

Mr Kambaksh's family led new protests yesterday, condemning the court's decision, and demanding a moratorium on the death penalty. His brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, said: "It is a warning to the whole of the Afghan people. The Afghan judiciary shouldn't have the ability to pass the death sentence. The whole system is corrupted... Lots of people are facing the death penalty for no reason.

"Maybe there are people who should face the death penalty, but they are in power, in government. The people on death row are the people who could not pay enough to get out."

The 23-year-old student is currently in prison in Kabul, where he was moved to amid fears for his safety in Mazar-i-Sharif, where he was convicted.

Under Afghan law, the cases will be sent to the President, Hamid Karzai, who can either sign the execution orders or grant a pardon.

He had earlier agreed to stop executing prisoners until the courts were reformed.

But all that changed in October 2007, when 15 prisoners were dragged from their cells, without warning, and gunned down on an army firing range. The families of the dead claimed they had been beaten before they were shot in the face and chest. Neither the families nor the prisoners were warned of their fate. Elaine Pearson, from Human Rights Watch, said: "President Karzai should suspend the death penalty immediately. More mass executions will be a huge setback for the rule of law in Afghanistan."

Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the UN, said: "The reality is that the rule of law and the judiciary are not yet strong enough to conduct capital cases. There are very high standards expected of the evidence that is presented, the defence lawyers need to be in place and capable of mounting a robust defence and the rules and procedures need to be followed. The rule of law and the judiciary have a long way to go."

The Supreme Court's mass ruling came as a parliamentary committee revealed plans to ban women wearing makeup, men wearing jeans or jewellery, and couples talking together in public – signalling a possible return to Taliban-style morality rules.

The hardline regime banned women leaving their homes without a male relative to escort them and forbade musical instruments and television. But Western clothes and music have boomed since the US-led invasion of 2001.

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