Afghan Christian convert may escape conviction due to 'insanity'

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The trial of a man facing the death penalty for converting to Christianity might be dropped on the grounds of his "mental instability", officials have said, as Afghanistan provoked international criticism over the case.

Abdul Rahman, 41, faced an initial hearing in the country's primary courts last week, charged with apostasy. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty under Islamic Sharia law.

Rahman reportedly confirmed to the court that he had converted while working for a Christian aid agency in Pakistan at the end of the 1980s and told the judge he had "no regrets" about his decision.

However, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Supreme Court, Wakil Omar, told journalists yesterday: "As far as I've noticed and been told, he might have a mental problem. If he is proved mentally ill, then he wouldn't be tried."

No journalists have been allowed to interview Mr Rahman and the Supreme Court spokesman said that tests to establish his sanity had yet to take place.

"He doesn't speak like normal people," Zalmai, the chief prosecutor in the case, who uses only one name, told The Independent. "We are delaying the next hearing for him to be examined by doctors to establish his sanity."

Analysts in Kabul suggested that the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai was seeking to avoid the case producing a conviction, in the face of criticism from many of the country's allies. "It does look as if this is the government seeking a way out of this case," Hamidullah Tarzi, a former Afghan finance minister and Kabul-based analyst, said.

Among the countries to criticise Afghanistan were the US, Italy and Germany, all donors towards Afghanistan's reconstruction and contributors to the international force of 30,000 foreign troops based in the country.

The prosecution of Mr Rahman has highlighted a number of glaring inconsistencies in Afghanistan's constitution, specifically the supposed rights of citizens to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.