Government says justice must decide Christian convert's fate

The government has distanced itself from the case of Abdul Rahman, who risks the death penalty for apostasy. Parts of the trial are being broadcast on television. Afghan analysts told AsiaNews: the pressure from integralists is too strong; mullahs still hold sway here. A very long time is needed for change. Meanwhile, the international military presence is crucial to avoid a new civil war.

Kabul (AsiaNews) – The Afghan government has distanced itself from the case of a Christian convert who risks the death penalty for apostasy. Under considerable international pressure from human rights groups and western governments, Kabul broke its silence to state that only justice could decide the fate of the Afghan citizen.

Khaleeq Ahmad, speaking in the name of President Hamid Karzai, said: "This matter was brought to the court by the family of the accused, and it must be tackled only by the authorities of justice, that are independent. The government of Afghanistan is nonetheless determined to see that human rights are respected in this country." No further elaboration was given about this stand. According to Afghan law, however, the President must sign the authorization of the death penalty.

Abdul Rahman, 41 years, was imprisoned two weeks ago, denounced by his family as a convert. The man had left Islam 16 years ago, when he worked for a Christian NGO in Peshawar (Pakistan). He later migrated to Germany, where he lived until 2002. When the Taleban regime was overthrown, he returned to seek custody of his children. Now he risks the death penalty under the Shar'ia Islamic law, the foundation of the Afghan Constitution.

The attitude of the government would seem to confirm statements made by some local analysts, approached by AsiaNews, about the case: "Afghanistan is still in the hands of the mullahs and the Shar'ia has the last word about everything." The sources – who chose to remain anonymous for security reasons – said "the country's evolution needs a very long time, because religion is too deeply engrained and the decisions by mullahs, many of who are very ignorant even about religious law, are untouchable."

The source continued: "That power is still in the hands of Islamic integralists is an objective fact: who won the elections? Who is sitting in parliament? Former mujaheedin and war lords. The judges are ulemas; the man heading the Supreme Court of Kabul – the institution charged with guiding all the national court apparatus – is a super-fundamentalist: Hadi Shinwari, leader of reactionary Afghan clerics."

The problem runs deeper still: "In Afghanistan, it has always been the case that abjuring Islam could lead to the death penalty; so we need to ask ourselves, is this crime is still admissible in a country progressing towards democracy? Sooner or later, the government will have to face this matter of conscience. Among those who led the process to draft the new constitution, there were also western advisors and experts. Perhaps they could have been more vigorous and explicit, back then, about guarantees safeguarding human rights."

Afghan websites are covering parts of the trial that is also being broadcast on national television. During one sitting, the prosecutor, Abdul Wasi, in a "very hard" tone, called for the "maximum penalty" – hanging – for the accused. Rahman, who was offered the chance to save himself by recanting, replied: "I accept (the penalty), but I am not an infidel or an apostate. I am a follower of Christ."

The reaction of the international community was swift and strong. Four NATO allies that have troops in Afghanistan – Italy, the United States, Germany and Canada – yesterday sent direct messages to Kabul, defending freedom of worship and demanding that Rahman be saved.

The analysts told AsiaNews: "It is right to put pressure, but we hope threats to withdraw from the country are only intended to show that the West is not indifferent to this kind of approach. The military presence of international troops is crucial to maintaining peace in the country. If this is taken away, civil war would break out: hard feelings and resentments have not died down or been forgotten, it's enough to see what is happening in the south, where the Taleban strength persists and where there is the threat of the mullah Omar to take up once again, and with more vehemence, the struggle against foreigners."