Aid workers face Taliban court

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The Independent Online

For the first time since their arrest, the aid workers in Afghanistan accused of preaching the "banned religion" of Christianity appeared in court in Kabul yesterday to declare their innocence.

One of the eight, Georg Taubmann, the German director of Shelter Now International, said: "During the investigation we were accused of many things, but... we have never converted anybody. We are shocked by the accusations."

The foreign aid workers have now been held for five weeks. Agents of the ruling Taliban's religious police, known as the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, swooped on their office and arrested them and 16 Afghan colleagues. The Afghans, also in custody, are expected to be tried separately.

Preaching Christianity carries a maximum penalty of death, and on Thursday Chief Justice Noor Mohammad Saqib said the judges could condemn the foreigners to die. But yesterday, presiding over the hearing in his cramped office with 18 other eminences, he seemed inclined to draw the sting. "We once again want to assure the detainees that the proceedings will be strictly in accordance with justice on the basis of Islamic Sharia. We assure [them] they should not fear that because we are Muslims so they will be punished."

These words may confirm a view that foreigners preaching Christianity risk jail and expulsion, not execution. But the swords on the wall behind the Chief Justice – with a flail used to flog petty criminals – cannot have improved morale.

At court, attended by some of the defendants' relatives, the six accused women were draped in veils and shawls, in line with Taliban law; one wore the powder blue, tent-like burqa, the uniform of Afghan women under the purist Islamic regime.

The Chief Justice told the defendants their lawyers could be foreign or Afghan, Muslim or otherwise.