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Afghanistan: Taliban Defiant Over Detained Foreign Aid Workers

  • Bruce Pannier

The arrest in Afghanistan this month of eight foreign aid workers accused of spreading Christianity has put the spotlight on the Taliban militia and its strict policies. But it may have also damaged the credibility of other aid organizations operating in the country. International organizations must agree to abide by Islamic law, including proscriptions against proselytizing, before they can work in Afghanistan. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier writes that local citizens' trust of aid organizations may become an inadvertent casualty of this latest incident.

Prague, 17 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- "We trusted the foreign helpers, but they have cheated us."

Those are the words of a Kabul fruit seller as cited this week by the Associated Press news agency.

More and more, that seems to be the view that the Afghan people have of foreign aid workers who operate in their country.

Diplomats from Australia, Germany, and the United States are in Afghanistan trying to make contact with eight of their nationals who are now being held on charges of attempting to convert the local Muslim population to Christianity.

But the Taliban has refused the diplomats access to their nationals and have already indicated the negotiations on this topic are over for now.

The eight workers from the German-based organization Shelter Now International are being held in Kabul. They were arrested, along with 16 Afghans, on 4 August and have not had any contact with diplomats or aid workers from other organizations.

News reports said yesterday the Australian, German, and American consuls brought cookies, shaving gear, and some other basic goods to deliver, via the Taliban, to their detained citizens. However, Alastar Adams, first secretary and consul officer at the Australian High Commission in Pakistan, said he thought the Taliban did not want the jailed aid workers to know they have any kind of support and doubted the goods would get to the detainees. The diplomats from the three countries have visas to stay in Afghanistan until 21 August, but the Taliban has told them the negotiation process is over for now and they should return to Pakistan.

Qori Fazil Rabi, the deputy chief of the Taliban's Bakhtar news agency, told RFE/RL that the diplomats were informed before they traveled to Afghanistan that they would not be able to visit the aid workers:

"As you know, the position of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban Afghanistan) was explained to these diplomats even before they came to Kabul. This position was explained clearly to them once again when they came to Kabul and talked with Taliban officials in the Foreign Ministry. And this position is that they can not visit the detainees before the investigation is complete."

Complicating the diplomats' attempts is the fact that Friday is a traditional day of prayer for Muslims and a day off from work. This Sunday (19 August) is also a national holiday commemorating the withdrawal of the British from Afghanistan 82 years ago.

Taliban officials continue to insist the eight foreigners and 16 Afghans from Shelter Now International were instructed about Afghanistan's laws against proselytizing and must face Shari'a (Islamic law) justice. Taliban officials showed confiscated religious material to the diplomats, including bibles in local languages, as proof of the group's violations. Rabi of Bakhtar said it was not the first time employees of this group had tried to teach Christianity to the Afghans and that one worker from the organization had already been expelled some time ago. He said a decision in this latest matter would come only after all the facts were gathered.

"I can not predict exactly when the investigation will be over because as the investigation continues, new evidence and new facts emerge. The investigation is such that one can not say how long it will take. The authorities of the Islamic Emirate are trying very hard to finish the investigation as soon as possible and take a reasonable decision according to the principles of the Islamic Emirate and Shari'a."

Reports said the Taliban is now including all foreign aid organizations working in Afghanistan in their investigation into attempted religious conversions. The reports said the Taliban fears a concerted effort is being waged by foreign organizations with the goal of chasing the Taliban, which controls about 90 percent of the country, out of the Afghanistan political scene.

Rabi, however, denied that other groups were being targeted by the Taliban for investigation:

"Until now, during the investigation nothing has been said about other aid organizations. Other organizations are working normally in Afghanistan. There is no talk about [investigating] their activities."

Macarena Aguilar of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross told RFE/RL her organization's mission in Afghanistan is working according to its normal regime. She said the group's efforts in Afghanistan are under a special curfew, but did not say if the organization's mission is under increased scrutiny by the Taliban.

(Hashem Mohmand of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)