Six years on the run from the book burners
When Afghan bookbinder and printer Amini published a version of the Qur’an in his native language it triggered a six year saga that has seen him on the run from the Taliban and dodging death sentences imposed by conservative Islamic clerics administering relentless, inflexible and sometimes brutal Sharia law.
He spent years in hiding in Iran, Indonesia and Malaysia – constantly looking over his shoulder for the agents of militant fundamentalist Islam.
Amini and his business partners became so infamous in Afghanistan that they were forced to use false names and keep their heads down for fear of being identified and outed as ‘infidels’ deserving of death.
Finally, he boarded an asylum seeker boat bound for Australia. Now he says he feels safe for the first time in years and can sleep without nightmares.
“I was one of a group of five people running a company that produced books. We translated books from other languages like Russian, Spanish and Hindi – mostly for kids,” Amini said.
“We would translate them, print them and send them to the market.
“One day we decided to produce a copy of the Qur’an in local languages including Dari – it was a big mistake,” he said.
At the behest of influential conservative clerics, who maintain that the Qur’an can only be read in the original Arabic, the Afghan Government sued the men and shut down their printing company.
Not to be outdone, the Taliban put a $US5 million bounty on the heads of the five men who were forced to flee.
“It was a bad experience. It was frightening. People wrote on the walls of our homes that we were ‘animals’ and we were worthless,” Amini said.
“All we wanted to do was to give people copies of Qur’an they could read in their own language – most Afghans, and especially the kids, cannot read Arabic.
“We could not go back to our homes – it was too dangerous. That’s why we ran away – to save our lives,” he said.
Amini took refuge in Iran for several years but his status there was tenuous.
“If the Iranian authorities had known about us they would have locked us up or sent us back to Afghanistan,” he said.
Leaving his home and his family in Afghanistan was the start of six years on the run for Amini.
“I was always looking over my shoulder in Iran and even in Malaysia and Indonesia – which are both Islamic countries.
“I was frightened someone might recognise me and then the militants would come after me.”
Amini’s final journey to Australia was not without its challenges. He and 14 other Afghan asylum seekers spent 24 hours baling water out of their sinking boat before they were rescued by the Royal Australian Navy.
“The water was up to our chests and some people had given up hope. We thought we were going to die,” he said.
Amini says that since arriving in Australia he has been able to sleep properly for the first time.
“I feel safe here for the first time in years – my sleep is not interrupted with nightmares and I feel I can start to live again,” he said.
But Amini is on a bridging visa and has no work rights.
“I am just waiting. I have no idea what will happen but I hope to one day get a job and support myself.
With time on his hands, Amini has also returned to his hobby of bodybuilding.
He has also found some solace as a member of the Voices without Borders asylum seeker choir.
“When I come to the choir I can see some friends and meet new people. It’s very nice to be with other people and to share some singing and some cooking,” Amini said.
“The best thing is when we go on stage. We performed in front of 1500 people. That was amazing. That was fantastic,” he said.
Amini saw his mother recently for the first time in years.
“She gave me a hug and I realised that your mother is the best thing in your life. We should all appreciate what they do for us,” he said.
There is no published law in Afghanistan prohibiting the translation of the Qur’an. But Amini was accused of violating Islamic Shariah law by modifying the Qur’an.
The courts in Afghanistan, an Islamic state, are empowered to apply Shariah law when there are no applicable existing statutes.
And Afghanistan’s court system appears to be stacked against those accused of religious crimes.
Judges don’t want to seem soft on potential heretics and lawyers don’t want to be seen defending them, according to Afzal Shurmach Nooristani, whose Afghan Legal Aid group defends people accused of religious offences.
Mr Nooristani says he and his colleagues have received death threats.
“The mullahs in the mosques have said whoever defends an infidel is an infidel,” he said.
Sentences on religious infractions can be harsh. In January 2008, a court sentenced a journalism student to death for blasphemy for asking questions about women’s rights under Islam. An appeals court reduced the sentence to 20 years in prison.
In 2006, an Afghan man was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity. He was later ruled insane and was given asylum in Italy.
Islamic leaders and the parliament accused President Hamid Karzai of being a puppet for the West for letting him live.
Shariah law is applied differently in Islamic states. Saudi Arabia claims the Qur’an as its constitution, while Malaysia has separate religious and secular courts.
But since there is no ultimate arbiter of religious questions in Afghanistan, judges must strike a balance between the country’s laws and proclamations by clerics or the Islamic council, called the Ulema council.
Mr Nooristani says that judges are so nervous about annoying the Ulema council and being criticised that they tend to push the Islamic cases aside and just defer to what others say.
Deferring to the council means that edicts issued by the group of clerics can influence rulings more than laws on the books or a judge’s own interpretation of Shariah law.
Judges have to be careful about whom they might anger with their rulings. In September, gunmen killed a top judge with Afghanistan’s counter-narcotics court in the latest of a string of judicial assassinations.