Thursday, 23 March 2006

Growing outrage at trial for Afghan Christian

[Please note: long post]

There is growing international concern at the possible death sentence facing an Afghan man who converted from Islam to Christianity 16 years ago.

Abdul Rahman, 41, has been charged with converting to Christianity, a crime under Sharia law.

A Supreme Court judge has reportedly said Abdul Rahman could be executed if he refused to return to Islam.

According to media reports, Abdul Rahman converted 16 years ago when he was working as an aid worker helping Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan. Reports say he was accused of converting to Christianity by estranged members of his family during a custody dispute over his two children.

Australia's ABC TV quoted prosecutor Abdul Wasi as saying: "According to Article 130 of the constitution of the country, we ask the court to sentence the defendant to severe punishment, meaning the death penalty."

President 'won't intervene'
A number of press reports have suggested the Afghan government may be looking for a way out of a difficult international situation, but Afghan president Hamid Karzai has reportedly said he would not interfere in the case.

Khaleeq Ahmed, a spokesperson for the President, told the BBC: "The judicial system is an independent system.

"This is a case that the family of the person brought against him. We are watching it closely and Afghanistan also respects human rights."

The President would have to uphold a death sentence before it could be carried out.

International condemnation
A growing list of governments have condemned the charges, including from Western governments involved in the US-led military overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, and governments that still have troops in the country.

Many senior ministers have spoken out against the charges and possible execution, including from Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia.

An AFP report said US President George W. Bush found the case "deeply troubling".

"We have got influence in Afghanistan and we are going to use it," Mr Bush was quoted as saying.

"It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another."

Britain's Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells has been quoted as saying: "I am deeply troubled by the reports of this case. Individuals should be able to practice their faith or beliefs free from persecution.

"We take every opportunity to urge states to implement laws and practices which foster tolerance and mutual respect."

In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement saying that he had called President Karzai to express his "deep concerns regarding the Rahman case and the issue of freedom of religion in Afghanistan".

"President Karzai listened to my concerns and we had a productive and informative exchange of views," the statement said.

"Upon the conclusion of the call, he assured me that respect for human and religious rights will be fully upheld in this case."

ABC TV Australia reported that its Foreign Minister Alexander Downer agreed that Australians would wonder why their troops were now fighting for a country which supports executing people because of their beliefs.

"Whatever the circumstances of this case, we don't want somebody to face execution full stop, but, secondly, we don't want someone to face execution just on the basis - or be punished - just for their religion," Alexander Downer said.

Human rights and religious belief
Amnesty International has called on the Afghan authorities to urgently commit themselves to judicial reform and to upholding international human rights standards.

The organisation has pointed out that the same article of the constitution used to bring the charges -- Article 130 -- also calls on the courts to rule "within the limits of the constitution".

Article 7 of the Constitution states that "the state shall abide by the UN Charter, international treaties, international conventions that Afghanistan has signed, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights".

These conventions include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Afghanistan has signed. Under Article 18 of the ICCPR, "everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion", including the "freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice".

May be mentally unfit
Aljazeera reports that an Afghan state prosecutor has questioned Abdul Rahman's mental health and said he may not be fit to stand trial.

According to the report, prosecutor Sarinwal Zamari told The Associated Press: "We think he could be mad. He is not a normal person. He doesn't talk like a normal person."

It said Moayuddin Baluch, a religious adviser to Afghan president Hamid Karzai also said the accused would undergo a psychological examination.

"Doctors must examine him," he said. "If he is mentally unfit, definitely Islam has no claim to punish him. He must be forgiven. The case must be dropped."

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