In late 2001, after the Taliban lost power and at the beginning of Hamid Karzai's presidency, the new Afghanistan government passed a freedom of speech law. It was to allow Afghans to speak freely.
Under the new conditions allowing a free press, many newspapers and magazines were born. After about six months, 104 print media were registered. I was one of the Afghans to start publishing a newspaper, with a big hope of democracy and believing we had freedom of speech.
I was editor- in chief of the Afghan weekly newspaper "Aftab" -- The Sun. Aftab was publishing in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital city, from early 2002 to 2003. Aftab was an independent newspaper.
Aftab began publishing editorials and opinion pieces increasingly critical of former mujahedeen commanders (warlords) and religious leaders in Kabul, especially those involved in fighting in Kabul in the early 1990s.
Former mujahedeen hold the majority of power in the government of President Hamid Karzai. The articles criticized a range of people, including Minister of Defence Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Minister of Education Younis Qanooni, Vice-President Mohammad Karim Khalili, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, and prominent religious leader Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf.
For example, in its March 18, 2003, issue, Aftab published an article about connections between religion and military power in Afghanistan, claiming that religious leaders "legitimized" warlordism.
In its March 27 issue, Aftab published an article strongly critical of former president Rabbani, with a pencil drawing of Rabbani destroying houses in Kabul in the early 1990s, and an article critical of Sheikh Mohammad Asef Mohseni, a mujahedeen leader and original head of the political organization Harakat-e Islami.
In the first week of April, Aftab published an article entitled Secularism as a Third Approach, and in the next issue, on April 12, an article critical of the conservatism and past military activities of Sayyaf and his party, Ittihad-e Islami.
Aftab became a target of harassment and death threats in March 2003 after publishing those and other articles critical of mujahedeen commanders and conservative religious leaders. Electricity to Aftab's office was cut off at the end of March on the orders of the agriculture minister who had also been criticized in the newspaper.
After running an article on mujahedeen chief Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf on April 9, I started getting anonymous warning calls. Most of them told me: "You published an article on the esteemed Sayyaf and you insulted him. You are going to pay for that ... it is easy for us to kidnap you."
I received another call the same day warning that all of my family will be massacred. Warnings also came from the national security department and some political parties.
A conservative journalist, who was editor of a mujahedeen publication, warned me on April 15: "I'm the one who told them not to harm you, but now it's more than I can handle. Be careful that you don't regret what you do."
The death threats stepped up on April 16. An anonymous caller told me: "We are following you like your shadow. We can kill you without any problem." Aftab had just published an article calling for a secular government in Afghanistan. When I went to the information ministry the next day, the deputy minister gave me a letter of recommendation for the interior ministry.
A senior police officer came to the newspaper's office a few days later and offered to protect me. But at their next meeting, the police officer told me that protection had been denied on the orders of senior interior ministry officials who believed that I had insulted the people and Islam and should bear the consequences.
Fearing that I could be murdered, I contacted many Afghan and international organizations to support me.
Aftab had published two articles -- Holy Fascism and Religion + State = Despotism -- raising questions about Islam's place in politics and methods of interpreting religious texts, and criticizing Afghan religious leaders. Sayyaf was reportedly apoplectic when he heard about my last article, Holy Fascism. The response was swift. Clerics loyal to Sayyaf, including Afghanistan's chief justice, Fazl Ahmad Shinwari, managed to convince President Karzai to allow my deputy and me to be arrested, on the grounds that my articles were blasphemous.
To prove this, they pointed to the remainder of the article, in which I suggested that the general history of Islam in Afghanistan had been almost entirely accompanied by violence and repression, and asked tough questions about why ordinary Muslims were bound by clerics' interpretations of Islamic law. This was a sort of Luther-like challenge to Islamic fundamentalism.
Under the pressure of the fundamentalists, clerics and mujahedeens, Karzai signed the order for my arrest.
On June 17, my deputy, Ali Sistani, and I were arrested and the Supreme Court of Afghanistan charged us with the crime of "insulting Islam," or blasphemy. Kabul police searched and then closed Aftab's offices, and Afghanistan's intelligence agency confiscated remaining copies of the newspaper from local bookstores.
The existing penal code of Afghanistan does not define blasphemy, but provides that certain crimes relating to Islam are punishable under Shariah (Islamic law). Crimes under Shariah are not codified or defined under Afghan law, but under most interpretations of shari'a, blasphemy is a serious offence, sometimes punishable by death.
"Mahdavi and Sistani would be tried on the allegation of insulting Islam," deputy chief justice Fazel Ahmad Manavi said in an interview with Radio Liberty on June 19, "and that international pressure could do nothing to stop the government from pursuing the case."
The Supreme Court decided to issue a death penalty for me but because of international pressure on the Afghan government, the news of my death sentence was not made public.
The pressure of the international community on Afghanistan about our case was high; The United Nations was especially putting pressure on the Afghan government.
Under this pressure, Karzai signed a release order for us. The next day, Afghan Intelligence Service made a big case to arrest me again. I have also faced terrorists who were looking for my death.
I left Afghanistan with a broken heart but I know my motherland needed me alive .
Mir Hussain Mahdavi is a reporter at The Hamilton Spectator and a part of The Spectator's foreign-trained journalist project.