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Afghan Court Gives Aid Workers Up to 15 Days to Prepare Defense - 2001-09-30

Lawyers for eight foreign aid workers in Afghanistan accused of spreading Christianity, have been given three to fifteen days to prepare their case. Taleban authorities say the eight will be treated fairly, and they say the threat of military retaliation against Afghanistan for refusing to hand over accused terrorist Osama Bin Laden will not have an effect on the trial.

After a 24-hour delay, court reconvened in Kabul on Sunday to hear Taleban Chief Justice Noor Mohammed Saqib give the eight foreigners three to fifteen days to prepare their defense.

The eight defendants, two Americans, two Australians and four Germans, work for the international aid group Shelter Now. They were arrested along with 16 Afghan staffers in August and accused of spreading Christianity. Shelter Now officials deny the charges.

The foreigners have been allowed to hire a Pakistani defense team but little is known about how the trial will proceed. The defendant's lawyer was given a multiple page indictment on Sunday and says he is confident that he will be able to visit the detainees to discuss the evidence in the case.

John Mercer, father of Heather Mercer, one of two American women detained, says he believes Chief Justice Noor Mohammed Saqib when he says the trial will not be affected by the dispute between the international community and the Taleban, over the refusal to surrender alleged terrorist Osama Bin Laden.

"In court today Chief Justice Saqib did say that there was no connection between the trial and the events of September 11. And I tend to believe that and I want to believe that," Mr. Mercer insisted.

Family members of the eight aid workers say they are in good physical shape but under a great deal of stress. Deborah Oddy, Heather Mercer's mother says she believes her daughter will be treated fairly by the Taleban.

"That is what we choose to believe, yes, that they will have a fair trial and of course we are hoping that the outcome will be - regardless of the verdict - we hope that the outcome is expulsion," said Ms. Oddy.

Taleban authorities say they have conducted a lengthy investigation into the activities of Shelter Now and have evidence in the form of books, video tapes and other instructional material that some of the aid workers were involved in trying to convert Muslim Afghans to Christianity, which is considered a serious crime by the Taleban.

So far there is no indication about what punishment the foreigners would face if found guilty. Under the Taleban's strict interpretation of Islamic laws, the Afghans could face the death penalty if convicted.