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.

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.

To date, the Taliban has conducted only one other trial against foreign nationals. In March 1997, two French men working for the Paris-based Action Against Hunger were charged with immoral conduct. Their trial lasted less than an hour, and the judge ordered them expelled. While that incident was handled quickly, the Shelter Now case has dragged out longer than any Afghan case in recent memory. The reasons may include confusion over which rule against proselytizing to enforce. One edict of supreme Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, says that foreign missionaries should be expelled. Another says they should be executed.

If Saturday's court session is any gauge, the confusion extends to the trial process. After a brief speech in which Chief Justice Sakib told the accused they could select a lawyer or defend themselves, the Shelter Now workers expressed exasperation over what specific crimes they were accused of committing, and how they could choose a lawyer if their continued detention provided them little access to diplomats, let alone the outside world. "In five weeks of detention, we have never been informed that we could select a lawyer," said George Taubmann, leader of Shelter Now's Kabul office and one of the accused. "We were never even able to defend ourselves in interrogation."

Speaking through an interpreter, Justice Sakib replied, "Well, now you are informed." Later, when asked if the court could supply a list of Afghan lawyers, the justice said: "This will pose a threat to the justice system. That is why we give total authority to the accused" to choose their own lawyers.

While the judge stressed that sharia law has a great capacity for mercy and provided a fair trial to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, he also made clear that he found the evidence against Shelter Now compelling. "We will convince you of your crimes on the basis of the evidence," he said. "And then we will convince the international community as well."

For their part, aid groups that operate in Afghanistan - clearing minefields, providing food and medicine, and rebuilding homes and roads - say there are some that engage in proselytizing. "People kind of knew this was going on, and it's not the kind of thing you do in Taliban Afghanistan," says one relief worker. "I think it's naivété, no doubt well intentioned, no doubt believing they are serving God and keeping the faith. But at the same time, they are putting others at risk."

Among the Afghans in Kabul willing to talk to a Western reporter, there were strong opinions on punishment, in expectation of a conviction. "Converting in a Muslim country is a big crime, and if the accused are from Afghanistan, they should hang them up," says Muhammad Amin, a jeweler in the Shah Zahir market. "If they are foreign persons, they should take them to foreign countries. They shouldn't punish them by Afghan rules." His cousin, Farid, agrees, but notes that sharia allows for extenuating circumstances. "For the Afghans, if it is because they were trying to feed their families ... then the punishment should be different."

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