TALIBAN says foreign aid workers accused of proselytizing to be tried in Afghanistan

Wednesday, August 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Eight foreign aid workers, including two Americans, will be put on trial on charges of preaching Christianity, the radical Islamic Taliban militia announced Wednesday.

``After the investigation is completed, the case will go to court and the court will decide according to Shariat,'' or Islamic law, Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil told the Taliban's official Bakhtar News Agency.

The foreigners _ two American women, four Germans and two Australians _ have been held for more than three weeks. They are members of a German-based Christian organization, Shelter Now International, and were arrested along with 16 Afghan employees.

There was no indication when the investigation would be completed.

According to Taliban law, foreigners convicted of preaching Christianity in deeply Muslim Afghanistan face jail time and expulsion, while the penalty for an Afghan who converts to Christianity is death.

However, the final say on any punishment lies with the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. The Taliban, who control about 95 percent of Afghanistan, are constantly revising their interpretation of how to carry out punishments under Islamic law.

Diplomats from the United States, Germany and Australia who have met with officials and with the detainees said they had not been notified of the Taliban's decision to hold a trial.

``We haven't received an official notification, but it sounds like it is coming to its logical conclusion,'' said Alastar Adams, consular official at the Australian Embassy in neighboring Pakistan.

He said the diplomats would want to attend the trial if it does take place.

``We would want just to be there as observers. That is a normal expectation anywhere in the world,'' he said.

The parents of the American women, Dana Curry and Heather Mercer, spoke briefly to reporters inside the U.N. guesthouse compound in the capital, Kabul. They visited their children on Monday shortly after arriving.

``We have been treated very kindly and nicely and we appreciate what they have done so far,'' said Curry's mother.

Curry and Mercer are believed to be single and in their 20s. The parents have been reluctant to give personal information. Curry's mother was identified as Nancy Ellen Cassell, a teacher from Thompson's Station, Tenn. Mercer's father was identified as John Mercer, a native of Washington, D.C. His hometown was not known. It was not known if their daughters were from those places as well.

John Mercer told reporters both women were in good health.

``On Monday we were very warmly greeted by the Taliban authorities who immediately allowed us to see our daughters,'' he said. ``They were in good health and in good spirits. We were very glad.''

The Taliban have not said when the parents would be allowed a second visit, but it was expected to be soon.

``We are now working with the ministry of foreign affairs to get back in to see our daughters on a more frequent basis and everything is going very well,'' said John Mercer. ``They have been very gracious hosts. They have treated us very warmly. We are just working with them closely to hopefully resolve this issue.''

The International Red Cross delivered a stack of woolen blankets Wednesday to the aid workers, who are being held at a reform school.

The Red Cross truck delivered 24 blankets _ apparently for the eight foreigners and 16 Afghans who were arrested. Taliban officials have not said where the Afghans were being held, and the number of blankets was the first indication that they might also be at the reform school, a sprawling compound in central Kabul.

Shelter Now International has worked in Afghanistan since 1993, prior to the Taliban's takeover of Kabul in 1996. It has operated in several provinces, but the Taliban have shut down all its projects.

The other foreigners have been identified by the Taliban as Germans Margrit Stebnar, George Taubmann, Kati Jelinek and Silke Duerrkopf; and Australians Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas.