The Westerners whose fate is in the Taliban's hands

War on Terrorism: Prisoners
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They have remained incommunicado, penned in two rooms, one for women and one for men, since the attacks on America interrupted their trial for preaching Christianity. Yesterday, after a three-week hiatus, during which the world changed for ever, eight Western aid workers trooped back into the spartan office of the Taliban's chief justice in Kabul for the resumption of their trial. If found guilty, they could be sentenced to death.

Sixty miles to the east, in the city of Jalalabad, the British journalist Yvonne Ridley, once a writer for The Independent on Sunday, was under interrogation by Taliban officials, having been picked up with two Afghan guides 10 miles inside the border with Pakistan.

They were trying to establish, they said, if she was a journalist or a spy. If they conclude she was a spy, the death penalty could be imposed.

It is hard to imagine a more terrifying plight than the one in which these nine Westerners find themselves: seven women and two men; two Americans, two Australians, four Germans and a Briton.

They are at the mercy of the most arbitrary regime in the world, where justice and punishment are based on the medieval prescriptions of sharia law – flogging, amputation, stoning, being buried alive – in a country so steeped in religious hatred that only yesterday in a mosque in Kabul the mullah told the faithful to have no association with non-Muslims, who he claimed were "inherently evil".

Three weeks ago, the position of the imprisoned aid workers was already dire, but since the terror attacks on America on 11 September, it has worsened dramatically. The diplomats who were trying (with little luck) to counsel them, and the relatives who could rarely speak to them, but were on hand to offer moral support, have all gone, obliged like all other foreigners to leave the country.

Now, at any moment of any day, American bombs and missiles could rain down on central Kabul, killing them; if they survived that they could be ripped to pieces by a vengeful mob like the one that descended on the US embassy in Kabul last week and set it ablaze.

Or, there is a third possibility: the eight of them, and, who knows, Yvonne Ridley too, could find themselves, like the Westerners stranded in Iraq in the run-up to the Gulf War, used as human shields: pawns in the Taliban's endgame.

One prominent Pakistani commentator described the aid workers as hostages long before the attacks on America made that a lively scenario.

Najam Sethi, maverick editor of Lahore's Friday Times, wrote in an editorial in his paper in early September that the timing of the arrests of the foreigners was very strange. In his view, the Taliban planned to use them as hostages.

Yesterday, he spelt out what he meant. "The Taliban had been well aware of what these people were doing in Afghanistan, and the timing of the arrests was very peculiar," Mr Sethi said.

"The United Nations had passed a resolution to put monitors into Pakistan to make sure the UN sanctions were not being broken, that no weapons should be given to the Taliban, that the economic sanctions were being enforced.

"The UN was at an early stage of putting pressure on them – and it was then that clerics in Pakistan set up the Council for the Defence of Afghanistan, and threatened to kill the monitors if they showed up. Then shortly after that the aid workers were taken hostage," he said.

A Western diplomat in Islamabad with expert knowledge of Afghanistan and its people said: "It's not unimaginable that the aid workers could be used as hostages.

"The Taliban's ambassador to Islamabad had already made links between these people and the treatment of Afghans abroad. The fact, for example, that thousands of Afghans were stranded in countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia and were unable to get home because of sanctions ... He had made these linkages," the diplomat said.

The arrest of the foreigners, who worked for a non-governmental organisation called Shelter Now International (SNI), long established in Afghanistan, came five years after the Taliban seized control of the Afghan capital, and it is believed to be only the second time that they have put foreigners on trial.

But if the timing of the arrest and prosecution suggested a desire by the regime to obtain some leverage on a world increasingly horrified by them and their works – then how much more useful could such a lever be now, with the wrath of America poised over their heads?

The Islamabad-based diplomat said: "No one knows what the trial procedures are all about The procedures are impenetrable. They caught these people red-handed, it appears, so why do they keep on delaying the trial?"

Najam Sethi said: "It's conceivable that at some time they might be used as bargaining chips ... It's possible. I wouldn't rule it out."

One thing, at least, is clear. In the three weeks since the foreign prisoners first stepped inside the bare room where crossed swords and a flail hang menacingly on the wall behind the judge's head, a great deal has changed within Afghanistan as well as without.

Merely the threat of an overwhelming military response by America has set waves of instability and resistance to the Taliban rolling across the whole country. People in the eastern province of Paktia have told the Taliban to pull Arab fighters connected to Osama bin Laden out of the area or face a revolt. Further north, near Sorobay, 50 Arab families have been evicted, according to refugees newly arrived in Pakistan.

The Taliban threatens barbarous punishments to those who disobey them, and as their grip on power – never totally secure – is challenged, the leaders start behaving in ways that are totally out of character. The Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, for example, who has never shaken an infidel's hand in his life, has just been interviewed on Voice of America.

Yet, amid all the flux and uncertainty, there could still be grounds for hope for the captive Westerners.

The Taliban, for the first time since they took power, are beginning to listen to what the world is saying. "If they were seeking the world's goodwill," said the diplomat, "they might yet let them go."