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Kabul under duress to free Christian convert

Afghan Supreme Court Judge A Mawlavizada (in pic) said Rahman was converted 16 years ago while working for a Christian group.
None | By Agence France-Presse, Kabul
UPDATED ON MAR 22, 2006 03:44 PM IST

International pressure mounted on Afghanistan on Wednesday over the case of a man who faces the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity.

The United States and its NATO allies Germany and Italy, all of whom have troops in war-scarred Afghanistan, expressed concern at the continuing trial of convert Abdul Rahman.

The case is being seen as a test of freedom for key US ally Afghanistan, where religion retains a tight grip on society four years after the toppling of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime.

Rahman, 41, is believed to be the first convert accused in Afghanistan under strict Islamic Sharia law for refusing to return to Islam.

Afghan Supreme Court Judge Ansarullah Mawlavizada told the agency that Rahman converted 16 years ago while working for an unidentified Christian aid organisation in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar.

The case has sparked outrage in many Western countries. US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said Tuesday that it concerned broader freedoms, which he said were enshrined in Afghan statutes.

"We believe in universal freedoms and freedom of religion is one of them. But I should also note more particularly, as regards this case, that the Afghan constitution as we understand it also provides for freedom of religion."

But Burns suggested that Washington would not try to impose its will in the controversial case.

"We hope that the Afghan constitution is going to be upheld and in our view if it is upheld, he will be found to be innocent."

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told a joint press conference with Burns in Washington that Kabul's embassy in the US capital had received "hundreds of messages" on the case.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Monday that freedom of worship and tolerance were important for any democracy.

"These are issues, as Afghan democracy matures, that they are going to have to deal with increasingly," he said.

German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul told Bild newspaper Tuesday that religious freedom was "everybody's right" and urged Karzai to step in.

Rahman reportedly lived in Germany for nine years before returning to his war-scarred homeland.

The country's secretary of state for defence Friedbert Pflueger also told Bild that Germany had contributed 2,450 soldiers to the NATO peacekeeping force in Afghanistan to help it "become a democratic country, not so that people can be sentenced to death on religious grounds."

Italy added its voice to the concerns as Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini summoned the Afghan ambassador to "shed light" on the situation. He ordered the Italian ambassador in Kabul to approach Afghan authorities over the issue.

Rahman was arrested just over two weeks ago when his parents informed the police about his conversion after he came back from Germany, judge Mawlavizada said.

He said that at the first session of his trial, Rahman confessed to converting to Christianity and said that he "had no regrets".

The second session, when Rahman will have to present his defence, will be held within two months.

"If he doesn't revert back to Islam, he's going to receive the death penalty, according to the law," Mawlavizada said. Only one person has been executed in Afghanistan since 2001, for a criminal offence.

"If he reverts, the court has two solutions: either to forgive him, or to give him minor punishments."

An investigator quoted Rahman's 75-year-old father as telling police: "If he has to die for the cause of Islam, then he should die. He has brought me shame."

Afghanistan became a byword for medieval punishments under the Taliban regime, with women being stoned to death for adultery and thieves having their hands chopped off.

The hardline movement was toppled by a US-led military operation in late 2001 for failing to hand over Osama bin Laden following the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Since then the world community has been trying to steer Karzai's government towards creating a Western-style democracy and justice system.

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