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Aid Worker Trial Begins in Afghanistan - 2001-09-04

Afghanistan's ruling Taleban Islamic movement says the trial of eight foreign aid workers has begun. The foreigners were arrested four weeks ago along with 16 Afghan nationals for allegedly preaching Christianity among Muslims.

The trial process under the Islamic Taleban remains unclear. Its Chief Justice Noor Mohammad Saqib says the proceedings are expected to last at least several days. Those put on trial are four Germans, two Americans, and two Australians from the German-based aid group Shelter Now. They were not present for Tuesday's proceedings.

Taleban Chief Justice Saqib says they have started going through the evidence and the investigation report, which comprises hundreds of pages. He says it will be a fair trial and the accused will be given the chance to speak and defend themselves without any compulsion or fear. Mr. Saqib would not say when the foreigners would be called to the court.

The Shelter Now workers were rounded up four weeks ago in Kabul, along with 16 Afghan colleagues on charges of converting Muslims to Christianity.

Taleban authorities say they have seized Bibles and other Christian material from the aid workers, showing they were involved in spreading Christianity.

Three Western diplomats from Germany, the United States and Australia are in the Afghan capital along with the parents of two American detainees to monitor the situation. The diplomats have made several unsuccessful attempts to try to get information about the legal procedure under Taleban rule.

Taleban Chief Justice Saqib says it is yet to be decided whether diplomats, journalists, and relatives of the accused will be allowed to attend the proceedings. Previously, senior Taleban leaders had promised that the trial would be open to the public. Mr. Saqib says it is too early to say what punishment may be handed out if the eight foreigners are found guilty of preaching Christianity.

The hard-line Taleban says the judgment will be based on Islamic law, but its supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has the final say on any punishment.

Taleban authorities have said the 16 Afghan nationals will be tried separately. But it is not known when that will happen. According to the Taleban law, the foreigners face jail and expulsion from Afghanistan, if convicted. The Afghan nationals could be sentenced to death.