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Rights Groups Express Concern Over Jailed Afghan News Editors - 2003-06-19

The United Nations and human rights officials in Afghanistan are expressing concern about the arrests of two Afghan editors for publishing an article that allegedly slanders Islam.

The editor of Afghanistan's Aftab newspaper, Sayed Mahdawi, and his deputy, Ali Riza Payam, are in jail. Afghan authorities arrested the two on Tuesday, saying the article defamed Islam, and therefore violated the country's press laws.

But many questions surround the arrests.

U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva says the United Nations and local human rights officials are investigating whether the arrests took place before a warrant was issued.

The article discussed the religious practices of some Afghan officials, and some observers say the arrests may have been politically motivated. Amnesty International's Afghanistan representative, Margaret Ladner, says it remains unclear what the legal grounds for the arrests were.

"Laws in Afghanistan are currently in a period of review, and so it is not always clear exactly what law is applicable," she said.

Ms. Ladner says Afghan law enforcement has been very cooperative in allowing human rights observers to visit the two journalists.

But she says her group is concerned the two journalists could spend a long stretch in prison before their case comes to trial.

"Current Afghan law allows for a maximum of a week in this sort of detention, but unfortunately, in many parts of Afghanistan where Amnesty [International] has visited, people are in pre-trial detention for many months, in some cases even a year," she said.

U.N. workers who visited the two in jail say they are in good condition.