KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — An Afghan man who faced the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity will be freed from prison and has asked for asylum in another country, U.S. and U.N. officials said Monday.
Hundreds of Muslims marched against a court’s decision Sunday to dismiss the case against Abdul Rahman after heavy international pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to drop the trial. Several Muslim clerics have threatened to incite Afghans to kill Rahman if he is freed, saying he is clearly guilty of apostasy and deserves to die.
A senior Afghan official closely involved with the case, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter, told The Associated Press that Rahman would be freed shortly, but the details of how it would be done were still being hammered out.
“We do understand that he will be released, that the Afghan government has found that there were substantial evidentiary problems with the case and that the case … has been referred back to the Ministry of Justice and that he will be released,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington. “We’re pleased by that.”
Prison warden Gen. Shahmir Amirpur said Rahman was still in his cell at Kabul’s notorious high-security Policharki prison late Monday.
U.N. spokesman Adrian Edwards made clear that Rahman was planning to leave the country once he is free.
“Mr. Rahman has asked for asylum outside Afghanistan,” Edwards said. “We expect this will be provided by one of the countries interested in a peaceful solution to this case.”
No country has offered asylum to Rahman, said another Afghan official familiar with the case who also declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Asked whether the U.S. government was doing anything or has made any offers to secure Rahman’s safety after he is released, McCormack said where he goes after he is freed “is going to be up to Mr. Rahman.”
He urged Afghans not to resort to violence even if they are unhappy with the resolution of the case.
“This has been a sensitive matter for the Afghan people,” McCormack said. “We understand that.”
Rahman, 41, was arrested last month after police discovered him with a Bible. He was put on trial last week for converting 16 years ago while he was a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan. He had faced the death penalty under Afghanistan’s Islamic laws.
The case 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 Karzai. President Bush and others insisted Afghanistan protect personal beliefs.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Karzai on Thursday to ask for a “favorable resolution” of the case.
Karzai had to balance those concerns with the risk of offending religious sensibilities in Afghanistan.
While officials said the case against Rahman was dropped, prosecutors also said earlier Monday they were still examining whether he was mentally fit to stand trial.
Deputy Attorney General Mohammed Eshak Aloko told The Associated Press that he may be sent overseas for psychological treatment if a medical examination that started Monday concludes that he is insane.
“Three Afghan doctors have worked on him today,” Aloko said. “Sometimes he appears normal but at other times he looks very strange. His body twitches all the time.”
He did not say when the evaluation would be completed.
“We will consider sending him for treatment outside the country if he needs it,” Aloko said.
Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told a news conference in Kabul that he was optimistic the issue would soon be resolved.
Earlier Monday, hundreds of clerics and students chanting “Death to Christians!” and “Death to Bush!'” marched through the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif to protest the court’s decision to toss out the case.
“Abdul Rahman must be killed. Islam demands it,” said senior Cleric Faiez Mohammed, from the nearby northern city of Kunduz. “The Christian foreigners occupying Afghanistan are attacking our religion.”
He warned of possible riots if Rahman is released.
Police in riot gear stood guard but did not intervene. The protest ended peacefully about two hours after it started.
Rahman was moved Friday to Kabul’s notorious high-security Policharki prison, a facility that houses about 2,000 inmates, including about 350 Taliban and al-Qaida militants. He was transferred after inmates at a police detention facility reportedly threatened him.
Associated Press correspondent Daniel Cooney in Kabul contributed to this report.