By Daniel Cooney
Monday, March 27, 2006
KABUL, Afghanistan, March 26 -- A court on Sunday dismissed the case against an Afghan man facing possible execution for converting from Islam to Christianity, officials said, paving the way for his release.
Abdul Rahman, who became a Christian in the 1990s while working for an aid group in neighboring Pakistan, might be freed as soon as Monday, an official said.
Muslim extremists had demanded death for Rahman, branding him an apostate for rejecting Islam, and warned Sunday that the court decision would touch off protests across this religiously conservative country. Some clerics had previously vowed to incite Afghans to kill Rahman if he was released.
Rahman was moved on Friday to the notorious, high-security Policharki Prison outside the capital after inmates at a jail in central Kabul threatened him, according to Gen. Shahmir Amirpur, the warden.
Authorities have barred journalists from seeing Rahman. Policharki houses some 2,000 inmates, including about 350 Taliban and al-Qaeda militants.
Amirpur said Rahman had been asking guards for a Bible but they had none to give him.
"He looks very calm. But he keeps saying he is hearing voices," Amirpur said.
A senior guard said inmates and many guards had not been told of Rahman's identity because of fears they might attack him. Rahman was in solitary confinement in a tiny concrete cell next to a senior prison guard's office.
Amirpur vouched for the prisoner's safety. "We are watching him constantly," he said. "This is a very sensitive case, so he needs high security."
Rahman's prosecution set off an outcry in the United States and other nations that helped oust the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001 and provide aid and military support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. President Bush and others insisted that Afghanistan should act to protect personal beliefs.
A Supreme Court spokesman, Abdul Wakil Omeri, said the case had been dismissed because of "problems with the prosecutors' evidence." He said several of Rahman's relatives testified that he was mentally unstable and prosecutors would have to decide if he was mentally fit to stand trial.
Another Afghan official closely involved with the case said the court ruled that there was insufficient evidence and returned the case to prosecutors for further investigation. But he said Rahman would be released in the meantime.
"The court dismissed today the case against Abdul Rahman for a lack of information and a lot of legal gaps in the case," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the case.
"The decision about his release will be taken possibly tomorrow," the official added. "They don't have to keep him in jail while the attorney general is looking into the case."
The court's decision was sure to anger at least some of the clerics who have demanded that authorities enforce a provision in the country's Islamic-based laws calling for the execution of Muslims who abandon the faith.
"There will be big protests across Afghanistan," said Faiez Mohammed, a Sunni Muslim leader in the northern city of Kunduz. "This has shamed Afghanistan in the eyes of other Muslim countries."
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said it wasn't clear whether the 41-year-old Rahman would be able to stay in Afghanistan or have to move abroad.
Rahman was being prosecuted for converting 16 years ago while working as a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan. He was arrested last month after police discovered him with a Bible.
In an interview published in an Italian newspaper on Sunday, Rahman said his family, including his former wife and two teenage daughters, had reported him to authorities.
He stressed that he was fully aware of his choice to convert.
"If I must die, I will die," Rahman told the Rome daily La Repubblica, which did not interview him directly but channeled questions through a human rights worker who visited him in prison.
Rahman said he chose to become a Christian "in small steps" after leaving Afghanistan around 1990. He moved to Peshawar, Pakistan, then Germany, and tried to get a visa in Belgium.