Trial and error in Afghanistan
Foreign aid workers accused of converting Muslims had a first court appearance on Saturday.
If the eight Christian aid workers arrested in Kabul last month have concerns about receiving a fair trial in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, their first day in court this weekend did little to reassure them.Skip to next paragraph
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The first miscue came 20 minutes into the proceedings, when Taliban officials handed out forms asking their name, occupation, and country of origin. The form was written in Dari, a Persian dialect. One of the accused, a German woman, asked in polite understatement: "Since my future depends on how I answer your questions, can I request that you give us the questions in a translated form, in English?"
It was just one of many signs of the complexity of this trial, and the difficulty the Taliban will face in coming weeks in this nearly unprecedented trial of foreigners under its interpretation of sharia, or Islamic holy law.
"The biggest difficulty is that this is just a clash of Western culture with extreme Islamic culture," says a Western diplomat in Islamabad, on condition of anonymity. "Even if the accused are guilty of proselytizing, in a Western European sense, that is not a crime."
Few trials have captured world attention like the Taliban's proceedings against the workers of Shelter Now International. The drama goes beyond the ultimate fate of the eight foreigners - two Americans, four Germans, and two Australians - and 16 Afghan nationals employed by the German-based Christian aid group.
For the Taliban, the Islamic militia that governs the bulk of Afghanistan, this is a showcase of its much-vaunted sharia legal system as well as a chance to defend Islamic culture and national sovereignty against foreign interference. For Western aid groups, it is the beginning of a grim period of heightened Taliban scrutiny - authorities shut down two other Christian aid groups last week and threatened to strictly regulate the rest. As such, the case could not only alter the course of humanitarian assistance in this desperately poor nation torn by more than two decades of war - it could also decide the legitimacy of the Taliban government and Afghanistan's place in the world of nations.
"Millions of Afghans lack a regular daily diet and rely on humanitarian aid," says another Western diplomat. "To the extent that the Taliban start to pressure all these operations, it will mean that Afghans don't get food. This, in turn, could send millions of refugees into Pakistan."
For now at least, the full trial is still days away. After five weeks of interrogation and investigation, Chief Justice Noor Muhammad Sakib told reporters, diplomats, and the accused that judges were still scrutinizing the evidence, including hundreds of computer discs, Afghan-language Bibles, and other religious materials that the Taliban religious police say were confiscated from Shelter Now. While no formal charges have been filed, religious police say the Shelter Now workers had been attempting to convert some 65 Afghan boys (the Taliban bars girls from school) and their families to Christianity. The eight foreigners deny the accusation. Proceedings have not begun yet against the 16 Afghans.