Taliban may order death for aid workers

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Afghanistan's Taliban regime suggested for the first time yesterday that the eight foreign aid workers on trial for trying to convert Muslims to Christianity may be executed.

Chief Justice Noor Mohammed Saquib told the Afghan Islamic Press, a news agency based in Pakistan: "We will punish them according to the laws they have broken ... If the crime is worthy of imprisonment, they will be imprisoned, if the crime is worthy of hanging, they will be hanged."

Until the judge's pronouncement, some foreign observers were confident the death penalty was only a possibility for Afghan citizens convicted of proselytising, while foreigners would face only a jail term followed by expulsion.

But Chief Justice Saqib allowed no hint of such an interpretation. "It is moving fast," he said of the trial, "but talk of what the punishment will be is premature. We are not saying anything about the trial proceedings of the punishment until it is finished. The Great Ulema [the body of Islamic clerics] and the judges will decide the punishment according to the principles of Shariat and our Islamic laws."

Other Taliban sources indicated that, whatever the verdict, the Taliban's blind supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who lives reclusively in the southern city of Kandahar, will have the final say.

Twenty-four aid workers with the Christian organisation Shelter Now International (SNI) were arrested more than a month ago on suspicion of proselytising: four Germans, two Australians, two Americans and 16 Afghans. Until Tuesday, Taliban spokesmen said the first big trial of foreigners in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over would be held in open court. But when the proceedings began, they reversed their position, barring all outsiders from the court. The deliberations of the first two days have been shrouded in the impenetrable murk that is the Taliban's hallmark.

Yesterday, three Western diplomats tried to pierce the murk, laying siege to the Supreme Court shortly after 9am in the hope of having a meeting with the Chief Justice. But the judge sent them a message that the court would contact them if there was a need to meet. After half an hour hanging about in the street, they gave up. They made no attempt to hide their exasperation. "We want to know what's going on," said Alastair Adams, the Australian consul in Islamabad. "It's too bad that we have been kept completely in the dark about the trial."

Although the parents of two of the accused foreigners were allowed to meet them at the weekend, and reported them well and in good spirits, a battery of reporters waiting outside the court over the past two days has failed to glean even a hint of what was going on inside.

There is uncertainty over several points: when the foreigners will be summoned to appear, whether their Afghan co-workers will be called to give evidence; and even the precise nature of the charges.

Yesterday, the Chief Justice said: "[They] have the right to defend themselves. If they want to use a lawyer, we have no objection. They can even bring in foreign, non-Muslim lawyers." But in the vacuum of information that prevails, how such a proposal might work out in practice remains obscure.

* The family of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Egyptian militant Islamist serving a life sentence in America, have asked the Taliban to release the foreign aid workers in exchange for his release.

In a letter to the Taliban, the family said Sheikh Omar, who was sentenced in 1995 for his part in a plot to bomb buildings in New York, was suffering from serious health problems. Islamist sources said the Taliban was willing to free the aid workers if Washington would allow Sheikh Omar to be sent to Afghanistan.