- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 14, 2001

A U.S. diplomat will travel to Afghanistan today to try to free two jailed American aid workers who, the ruling Taliban said yesterday, will have to stand trial for proselytizing.
Although the Taliban, after issuing a visa to a U.S. consular officer from neighboring Pakistan, ruled out access to the detained Americans, Washington insisted the official, whose name was not released, would make an effort to see them.
"The Taliban should have no illusions about the goal of our consular officer in traveling there," said Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman. "That's to see the Americans that have been detained, to meet with them and assess their situation. We will continue to press the Taliban for access to the detainees."
The Americans Dana Curry and Nicole Barnardhollon along with four Germans, two Australians and 16 Afghans, were arrested on Aug. 5 and charged with trying to convert Afghan Muslims to Christianity. The aid workers, sent to Afghanistan by the German relief group Shelter Now, deny the charges, but the Taliban officials say they have strong evidence.
In Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, which is one of three countries recognizing the regime in Kabul, a Taliban official said the visas, also issued to a German and an Australian diplomat, had been given only for meetings with officials in Kabul.
"The diplomats … can collect their visas today," the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Mohammad Zaeef, told a news conference. "However, they can only meet the authorities of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, but not the detainees."
Mr. Reeker confirmed that "some meetings with Taliban officials" would take place, "as is the case whenever consular officers visit detained American citizens." But he added: "The purpose of his visit is to gain access to our citizens to assess their well-being and to look after them."
After a week of speculation over what penalty the detainees might face death, as required by Islamic law, or expulsion, according to a June decree the Taliban said on Sunday the foreigners probably would receive five-year sentences if convicted, while the Afghans would have to be executed.
Ruling out a pardon, Mawlavi Mohammad Wali, the Taliban's minister for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, said: "The appeal for acquittal was only possible if they were not aware of our stance and announcements, or if they had done what they did through a mistake. After the investigation is over, an Islamic Shariah court will decide as to what sort of treatment will be adopted against them."
The Taliban says materials confiscated from the office of Shelter Now prove the legitimacy of the charges against the workers. A week ago, Mr. Wali showed reporters computer disks containing Christ's life story in the local Dari language as evidence collected from Shelter Germany's Kabul office. He also showed an English and a Dari copy of the Bible, a book on Christianity, a timetable for a radio broadcast of the aid agency and what he called a written confession of a foreign female staffer of the group.
Francesc Vendrell, U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, who met Taliban leaders over the weekend, warned yesterday of an international outcry if the case was not quickly resolved.
"I would hope that the Taliban realize that there would be a major international outcry if this situation were to prolong itself or if the Afghans were not to be dealt with in a lenient way," Mr. Vendrell told Reuters Television.
"My whole emphasis was to say that the Taliban had a duty to allow the diplomatic representatives to be there because it is part of the international law that diplomats have access to their nationals if they are arrested," he said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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