Afghan Christian convert who faced death set to be freed

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The Independent Online

The Afghan government appeared ready to cave in to intense international pressure last night over the Christian convert who faces a likely death sentence for apostasy in the Afghan courts.

Afghan officials confirmed late in the day that Adbul Rahman, a 41-year-old who converted 16 years ago, would be released after the case against him was dismissed on what were described as "technical grounds".

The judge, Ansarullah Mawlavizada, told reporters that the case contained "legal flaws and shortcomings" and would be referred back to Afghanistan's attorney general. In the meantime, judicial officials said, he would be released.

Government officials cited a "lack of evidence" in the case, despite Rahman's frank admission in a court appearance that he was a Christian convert and had "no regrets" about his decision.

"We expect him to be out by the end of the day," one senior Western diplomat involved in the case told The Independent. It was not clear where Mr Rahman would go, though his life would certainly be in danger if he remained in Afghanistan.

The development followed reports on Saturday that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was taking personal charge of the case. The Afghan president has faced intense pressure both from the conservative religious establishment in Afghanistan and many of the Karzai government's Western allies, who underwrite most of the annual $4.5bn (£2.6bn) cost of reconstruction.

The case has highlighted the continuing contradictions within Afghanistan's legal system, which simultaneously enshrines strict Sharia law as well as freedoms of religion and speech.

Government officials suggested after Rahman's first court appearance that the case might be abandoned on grounds that he was mentally unfit.

Rahman was refused contact with Western journalists and moved to the notorious Pul-e-Charki prison outside Kabul on Saturday. In answer to written questions smuggled to him by an Italian newspaper he claimed to be ready to die for his religious convictions. Asked if he would leave Afghanistan he told La Repubblica: "Perhaps, but if I flee again that would mean my country hasn't changed. It would mean that they have won, our enemies. Without respect for human rights, without respect for all religions, the Taliban has won."

Rahman said he chose to become a Christian "in small steps" after leaving Afghanistan around 1990. He moved to Peshawar in Pakistan, then Germany and tried to get a visa in Belgium. While working as a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan, he converted.

Last month, he was arrested after police discovered a Bible on his person.

"In Peshawar, I worked for a humanitarian organisation. They were Catholics," Rahman told the Associated Press. "I talked to them about religion, I read the Bible, it opened my heart and my mind."

Muslim clerics in Afghanistan, who have threatened to incite Afghans to kill Rahman if he is freed, yesterday warned that the decision to drop the case would spark a backlash.

"There will be big protests across Afghanistan," said Faiez Mohammed, a Sunni leader in the northern city of Kunduz. "This has shamed Afghanistan in the eyes of other Muslim countries."

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday said Afghanistan had to "find its own way" as it wrestled with the case which has divided so many. "The Afghans are working on it," she said. "America has stood solidly for religious freedom as a bedrock, the bedrock of democracy."