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Eight Foreign Workers Appear in Afghan Court - 2001-09-09

In Afghanistan, the eight foreign aid workers detained by the ruling Islamic Taleban movement for allegedly promoting Christianity, have appeared in the Taleban court.

The eight accused, two Americans, four Germans and two Australians, were brought to the court for their first public appearance since their detention five weeks ago. They are employees of the German-based aid group Shelter Now.

Diplomats, journalists and some family members of the accused packed the office of the Taleban Chief Justice, the venue for the trial. Chief Justice Noor Mohammad Saqib, in a white turban and a black vest, sat at a large desk at the front of the room. On the wall behind him hung two swords, a small whip and a tapestry with verses from Koran.

The German head of Shelter Now, George Taubmann told the court he was shocked by the accusation. He said they were not true. Several detainees complained they don't even know what the charges are. Silke Durrkopf is one of the four German detainees. "His Excellency, I have had no chance to get in contact with my family since I have been here and I have never heard why I am here," she said. "I was for 10 weeks in Germany. I returned a few days before I came here. I was not even in this country; I don't know why I am here and I wrote several letters to my family which were not delivered till now, and I was not allowed to phone anybody."

Taleban Chief Justice told the aid workers his team of judges and Islamic scholars will ensure the trial is fair. Speaking through an interpreter, he said Saturday's session was meant to determine whether the accused want to hire a lawyer or will defend themselves.

The Judge said the eight accused are allowed to get a lawyer or they can defend themselves. He said the lawyer can be either Afghan or foreign, Muslim or non-Muslim.

One of the American jailed women, 24 year old Heather Mercer, looked tense and scared. She clutched her father's hand throughout most of the proceedings.

Foreign diplomats, meanwhile, argued for more access to their nationals in order to help them with their defense. U.S. diplomat David Donahue said this was the norm in many other countries. "What we would like to do is to create a list of lawyers or opportunities for legal defense for each of the defendants, have time for them to review that case and decide what is in their best interest," said David Donahue. "That will mean lots of access, so if we could have some frequent visits so we can work on providing them proper defense. Thank you."

That request was repeated by both the Australian and German diplomats, who have been frustrated by their lack of access to the aid workers since their arrest. But the chief justice's answer was not the one the diplomats were looking for.

He said once the accused hire lawyers the court will ensure that the lawyers have regular meetings with the detainees. But diplomats are not lawyers so they cannot have the same access

Talking to reporters outside the court building afterward, Australian diplomat Alastar Adams sounded more positive about Saturday's proceedings. "At least they know now there is quite a court case against them and they will have to defend themselves," he said. "This has not been clear to them up to now. So I think now they are aware of the situation and the seriousness of it."

16 Afghan employees of the aid group were also arrested, but they are to be tried separately at a later date. Under Taleban's law, the Afghan nationals face the death penalty if found guilty. The chief justice, speaking to reporters after the court session, was noncommittal about punishment for the foreigners. It is not clear how long the trial will last.