Afghan Christian convert’s case dropped but not closed

Court dismisses charges against a Christian convert whose trial caused outrage. He reportedly will be examined in a hospital.

KABUL, Afghanistan — After days of international outcry, an Afghan court has dismissed the case against a man threatened with being put to death for having converted from Islam to Christianity, a court official said Sunday.

The charges of apostasy against Abdur Rahman, a 41-year-old medical aid worker, were being dropped for lack of evidence, said Abdul Wakil Omari, a spokesman for the Afghan Supreme Court.

“It has been sent back to prosecutors,” Omari said of the case. He said questions had also been raised about Rahman’s mental fitness and whether he held foreign citizenship, which could place him outside the jurisdiction of the Afghan courts. On the radio today, Omari said Rahman would be sent to a hospital for examination. Local media had reported that Rahman, who lived outside Afghanistan for a number of years, might be released and expelled from the country soon.

Rahman’s trial had galvanized foreign governments and international activists, who called on Afghanistan to respect religious freedom. On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Afghan President Hamid Karzai and urged him “in the strongest terms” to secure Rahman’s release. Rice also brought up Rahman’s case in meetings with Afghanistan’s foreign minister last week. President Bush has described himself as “deeply troubled” by the trial.

The Vatican, European human rights groups and several other governments also have urged that Rahman be released.

Sharia, or Islamic law, considers converts to be apostates, and calls for the death penalty unless they return to Islam. During a civil child custody case, it was disclosed that Rahman had converted to Christianity 16 years ago.

Omari, the court spokesman, cited two factors for the case’s dismissal: signs that Rahman might be mentally disturbed and the possibility that he had become a German citizen.

“Rahman’s daughter and uncle gave evidence that Abdur Rahman is mentally ill,” Omari said. “The prosecutors said that when they asked him questions, he was sometimes speaking to himself and muttering, and when they asked, ‘What are you saying,’ he said, ‘I am speaking with God.’ So the prosecutors have to provide more evidence to bring the case back to the court.”

In addition, Omari said, “we don’t know whether he has German citizenship or not. If he does, we cannot prosecute him in Afghanistan.”

If Rahman is released and the case is ended, “it will be a very good thing,” Stephen J. Hadley, Bush’s national security advisor, said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

The case has put pressure on both Bush and Karzai.

Conservative Christians, who form a significant part of Bush’s political base, have pressed the administration to win freedom for Rahman and sought to turn the case into a test of the merits of Bush’s policies overseas.

On Sunday, the Family Research Council, a prominent conservative group based in Washington, issued a statement noting the reports that Rahman would be released and calling on Bush to “secure a clear understanding of religious freedom” from Karzai’s government.

Abdur Rahman’s “imprisonment has revealed a major fault in our foreign policy. If we can’t secure the most basic of human rights, Americans will increasingly question whether we should continue the expenditure of lives and resources in these countries,” the statement said.

Rice, in a television interview broadcast Sunday, sought to rebut the idea that Rahman’s case had shown U.S. intervention in Afghanistan to be futile. “This is a country that has come an enormous way in four years,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“I am, I hate to say, 51 years old, but it’s in my lifetime that black Americans were guaranteed the right to vote. Who are we to be so, so insistent that people must do this overnight?” she said. “We’re working with the Afghan government. They’re moving in a democratic fashion. It’s going to be hard.”

For Karzai, releasing Rahman could intensify criticism that the Afghan leader and his government are puppets of the U.S. The case has been seen here as a test of Afghanistan’s independence from foreign, especially American, interference.

Afghanistan’s constitution simultaneously embraces religious liberty and Sharia. Although federal law allows for freedom of religion, it is silent on the specific question of conversion and whether that ought to be a matter for Islamic law to decide. But even moderate Muslim clerics, as well as members of Rahman’s own family, have said that death is the only fair and logical punishment for him.

In media accounts, Rahman has said that he converted to Christianity in Pakistan, where he worked with a Christian aid organization. He reportedly spent time in Iran, Russia and Germany before returning to his native land three years ago.

Described in local newspaper profiles as a divorced father and a shiftless man with a history of mental imbalance, Rahman apparently walked into a police station last month to file a domestic complaint and declared that he was a Christian. That triggered the case against him.

In an interview published Sunday in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Rahman said he was at peace and prepared to die for his beliefs.

“I have full awareness of what I have chosen. If I must die, I will die,” Rahman said in response to questions that the Rome-based newspaper passed to him through a human rights worker.

Rahman’s trial laid bare the tension surrounding the role of religion in society here after the fall of the Taliban and its hard-line policies. Islam continues to dominate daily life, and on many social matters, such as the drinking of alcohol, its teachings remain the rule.

Many Afghans say that Rahman must pay the ultimate price for his renunciation of Islam, and have vowed to kill him themselves if he is released. Such high passions at home thrust the Afghan government into a difficult position, forced to weigh domestic pressures against the outrage of Western countries that have poured billions of dollars into rebuilding this war-torn nation.

There were signs last week, however, that Karzai’s government was seeking a way out. On Thursday, after a telephone conversation with Karzai, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the Afghan leader had assured him a solution would be “worked out quickly.”

Special correspondent Zaman reported from Kabul and staff writer Chu from New Delhi.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Los Angeles Times, USA
Mar. 27, 2006
Wesal Zaman and Henry Chu, Special to The Times

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday March 27, 2006.
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