KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Family members describe Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh as a frightened young man, sitting in a cramped Afghan prison cell alongside 30 hard-core criminals, hoping an apology will save him from execution for blasphemy.
But to the outside world, the 23-year-old student and journalist has become a cause: a symbol of Afghanistan's clashing constitutional commitments to freedom of expression yet also to Islamic law that allows apostasy to be punished by death. His sentence, imposed after a closed-door trial during which he was not permitted a lawyer or a hearing, has become a rallying cry for foreign critics who want Afghanistan to hew to international norms on human rights.
The question now is whether international protests will save Kaambakhsh from a firing squad, or instead stiffen the spines of religious conservatives who fear that Afghanistan's morals are being diluted by imported Western values.
The student's troubles began when he downloaded an article written by an Iranian writer living in Europe that questioned the Islamic precept of allowing men to take several wives. Kaambakhsh, a journalist in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, was arrested in October after he circulated copies of the article at the city's Balkh University.
He was convicted and sentenced to death on Jan. 22. Kaambakhsh has told his family he expects to die, but many Afghans expect the death sentence to eventually be rescinded. The student still has the right to appeal to two higher courts and, as a last resort, President Hamid Karzai has authority to commute his penalty to a jail term.
"We have talked to experts in Sharia [Islamic] law who say there are no executions for blasphemy when the accused apologizes," said Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, the condemned man's brother. "And my brother has apologized lots of times."
But many Afghans also say the mounting international pressure against the death sentence is creating a populist backlash against foreign meddling in the country's justice system. That hostility complicates matters for Karzai, whose room to maneuver is already limited by his deepening unpopularity and the perception that he is a U.S. puppet.
"These are the worst kinds of cases for Karzai," said Sherin Aqa Manawi, deputy head of the Ulema Council, Afghanistan's central body of religious scholars. "It was a normal case before the courts until the West made it into a big deal. But when the West interfered, they cornered Karzai.
"He is caught between showing the West that he's bringing democracy and human rights to Afghanistan," said Manawi, "and on the other hand showing Afghans that he supports their religious leaders."
Kaambakhsh's brother calls the sentence "a very emotional decision by the court," whose prosecutor and judges lacked the sophistication to understand the difference between downloading an article and writing it.
"The judges did not even know the difference between a keyboard and a monitor," Ibrahimi said.
Afghans who are aware of the debate are divided over the sentence. Some, -- such as Ahmad Romal, a 21-year-old Kabul University student -- argue, "If there is no death penalty, then these kinds of un-Islamic activities will continue."
Others say the sentence represents the religious extremism that was supposed to have been banished with the defeat of the Taliban in 2001. "We shouldn't let anyone implement laws like the Taliban did," said Mohammed Abraham, 65, a former teacher. "I hope they forgive him and give him a chance."
Organizations ranging from the United Nations mission in Afghanistan to Reporters Without Borders have joined a Western chorus urging Karzai to spare Kaambakhsh.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband raised the case with the Afghan president during meetings this month in Kabul. And NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned last week in a major speech to a security conference in Munich, Germany, that "there should be understanding from our Afghan friends that we have great difficulty to accept a death sentence for a young journalist for downloading an article from the Internet."
"Public support in our societies for our soldiers' presence in Afghanistan will erode," he said, "if we do not agree on the universal values we are defending, together with our Afghan friends."
Karzai has said only that "at the end of the day, justice will be done in the right way."
Afghan critics of Kaambakhsh's death sentence fear that the foreign pressure could prove counterproductive.
"The international community should know that Afghanistan has its rules and laws," said Habiba Danesh, a parliament member who agrees that Kaambakhsh should have been allowed a defense lawyer and an open trial. Still, she said, "Afghanistan should be left to make its decision in light of its judicial system."