Aid workers' trial resumes

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The Independent Online

A Supreme Court chief justice in Afghanistan told eight foreign aid workers today that they would be treated fairly, and that the threat of a US military assault would not play a part in their trial on charges of preaching Christianity.

The trial resumed today after a three-week suspension following the September 11 terror attacks in the US and fears of American retaliatory strikes. Afghanistan has protected the main suspect in the attacks, Saudi-born millionaire Osama bin Laden.

Eight employees of the German-based Christian group Shelter Now International, who were working in Afghanistan when they were detained, appeared before Supreme Court Chief Justice Noor Mohammed Saqib, who told them they would be treated according to Islamic justice.

One of the defendants, German Silke Duerrkopf, at first didn't show up to today's proceedings because she said she felt ill. But the court sent for her at a Kabul detention centre, saying her presence was necessary. She later arrived, looking pale.

The chief investigator, Mohammed Umer Hanif, read the charges aloud and recited a list of items that had been seized from the aid workers' offices, including what he said were cassettes and reading material related to Christianity.

The court asked the detainees if they wanted Pakistani lawyer Atif Ali Khan to defend them, and the detainees said they did.

Mr Khan was given between three and 15 days to prepare his case, and the Judge assured the defendants that they would be given access to their lawyer.

The four Germans, two Americans and two Australians have been accused of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. They have denied the allegation.

The defendants are represented by Mr Khan and another Pakistani lawyer, Bismillah Khan, who travelled to Afghanistan on Friday despite his security concerns.

The two American women, Heather Mercer, 24, and Dayna Curry, 29, were arrested on August 3 in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Two days later, the Taliban's religious police stormed the offices of Shelter Now International and arrested the other six foreign employees: Germans George Taubmann, Margrit Stebnar, Kati Jelinek and Duerrkopf; Australians Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas; and 16 Afghan staff members.

Fears for the safety of the defendants mounted after the US threatened military strikes against Afghanistan.

The Taliban have refused to hand over bin Laden, who has lived in Afghanistan since 1996.

In Islamabad, Heather Mercer's father, John Mercer, said he believed that if the US attacks, the Taliban "would do their utmost to keep them safe."

Heather's mother, Deborah Oddy, said she had received a letter from her daughter written on September 25 asking her to plead with President George W Bush "to not take any retaliatory action until we've been freed."

"She said, 'All eight of us want to live,' and you can certainly understand that," Mrs Oddy said.

Thomas's sister also appealed today to the US to delay any military strikes until all the workers are freed.

"We're worried about her trial, and now they're going to attack in that area, you know. It's too much to bear at the moment," Samantha Thomas told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

The Taliban have refused to say what the punishment would be if the eight are convicted, but Taliban law allows for sentences ranging from expulsion to jail terms to death.

The Afghan workers of Shelter Now International are to be tried separately, although the Taliban have refused to say when.