Afghanistan's judges and Islamic clerics yesterday started pondering the fate of eight foreign aid workers facing accusations of proselytizing in territories controlled by the Taliban religious militia. Details of the trial process remain sketchy, and it is still unclear when a verdict will be announced and how severe the punishment, if any, will be.
Prague, 5 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's Taliban Supreme Court yesterday started studying the case of eight foreign aid workers accused of preaching Christianity in this overwhelmingly Muslim country.
The 12-judge panel met behind closed doors in the Afghan capital, Kabul, with ulemas (Islamic scholars) set to review the defendants' files and check the Islamic codes against the violations they allegedly committed.
The eight -- two Americans, two Australians and four Germans -- belong to a German-based relief organization known as Shelter Now International. They were arrested a month ago, along with 16 local staff, by officers of the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the Taliban's religious police.
On 3 September, Justice Minister Mullah Nooruddin Turabi said that, in addition to being accused of preaching an "abolished religion," the foreign nationals could face other charges.
Turabi did not elaborate, but Taliban Chief Justice Mawlawi Noor Mohammad Saqib has said that additional charges could include entering Afghan homes without permission and watching movies.
The Taliban claims that two of the accused were arrested while showing Christian material to an Afghan family on a computer. Two other foreign workers were reportedly apprehended after visiting the house of an Afghan. Both are considered crimes under Taliban rules.
As proof of the violations, the Taliban has displayed confiscated religious material, including videotapes and Bibles printed in the local Dari language.
It is the first time foreigners have been tried for preaching Christianity and seeking to convert Afghans. Proselytizing is strictly prohibited by Sharia Islamic laws and can be punishable by death.
Yet, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has recently decreed that the penalty for foreigners caught proselytizing should be jail and expulsion.
In comments reported today by the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency, Chief Justice Saqib confirmed the death penalty could be considered an option if the eight foreigners are found guilty.
Whether the Taliban regime, officially recognized by only three governments -- those of Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia -- will choose to sentence the defendants according to Omar's decree or according to Sharia law -- thus risking further confrontation with the international community -- is not yet clear.
The only other trial of foreigners under Taliban laws occurred in March 1997, when two French nationals of the Paris-based organization Action Against Hunger were tried on charges of immoral conduct. The two men waited nearly a month for the court hearings to begin and were eventually sentenced to the amount of time they had already served and ordered out of the country.
Details of the present trial process remain sketchy.
Foreign media yesterday quoted Saqib as saying that the trial had already begun, but the deputy head of the Taliban's Bakhtar official news agency, Abdulwakil, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that it had not:
"The Security Ministry and the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice have completed their investigation and have handed it over to the court. The court has not made a decision yet."
A Taliban government official, who declined to be identified, told RFE/RL that yesterday's closed-door hearings were only a pretrial review, although they could be considered part of the trial.
Western diplomats and relatives of the eight aid workers who arrived in Kabul more than a week ago to assist the defendants have complained that the Taliban is keeping them in the dark about the legal process and that they have been unable to talk to any officials.
Saqib said yesterday that he is willing to explain the procedure to the diplomats if they want to come to the Supreme Court building and meet him. Yet, when the American, Australian, and German envoys showed up this morning, they waited 30 minutes outside the building before being turned away and told that their presence had not been requested.
Saqib has said that judges will soon decide whether the court proceedings will be open, thus apparently countering earlier promises made by Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil that Western diplomats, relatives, and journalists would be allowed to attend.
Saqib also has said that the foreign aid workers will be given a "full chance" to defend themselves when they appear before the court. Although the Taliban does not consider it necessary that defendants be given the right to have lawyers, he added, judges would not object to them hiring legal assistance.
Another unclear point is when the defendants -- who are being kept in an unknown location -- will be asked to appear before the judges.
AIP today quoted Saqib as saying that the accused will be brought before the court "whenever required" and that, once a verdict is reached, it will be handed to Mullah Omar for final approval.
The government official interviewed by RFE/RL clearly suggested that the defendants would not be asked to appear before the court until the judges decide upon a sentence. He said: "When a final decision will be reached on the charges and the punishment, then the accused will be given a chance to listen [to them] and to defend themselves."
The fate of the 16 Afghan aid workers arrested along with their Western colleagues looks even less enviable.
Taliban officials have said that they will be tried separately, once the trial of the foreigners is over. Abdulwakil said yesterday that, in the case of the Afghans, the court's ruling will be different from that of the foreign nationals:
"The case of the 16 local and of the foreign aid workers is nearly completed. Under the holy Islamic laws, the punishment will definitely be different. The court will decide upon it according to Islamic laws."
In an earlier interview with RFE/RL on 8 August, Abduwakil said the 16 Afghan nationals were already considered to be "murtads," meaning that they had converted to the Christian faith and, in doing so, had betrayed Islam. He also made it clear that apostasy was punishable by death under Taliban religious rule.
(Farangiz Najibullah of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)