- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 3, 2001

PESHAWAR, Pakistan The Pakistani lawyer who is defending eight Western aid workers jailed in Afghanistan on charges of teaching Christianity says he fears for their safety not so much from U.S. bombs, but from angry Afghans bent on vigilante justice.

"The environment is changing inside Afghanistan. People are getting angry. I'm afraid they may take the law into their own hands," said Atif Ali Kahn, who practices both Muslim and Western law from his office in downtown Peshawar.

Mr. Khan said that people on the street pose the threat, not the Taliban officials in charge of the aid workers.

"These are educated people who know what they are doing. Even while bombs are dropping, they know they should be hospitable," he said in an interview this week, shortly after returning from his third trip to Afghanistan to try the case.

The Taliban detained the eight workers, including Heather Mercer of Vienna, Va., in August along with 16 local staff. They all worked for the German-based Shelter Now International, a Christian aid group.

Mr. Khan, a graduate of American University in Washington, took on the case September 11, just hours before suicide hijackers attacked New York and Washington.

The trial, he said, is finished.

"We've done everything we can. We're just waiting for a final verdict," he said. "Because of the war, they have concluded they could sit on it."

The eight are charged with proselytizing Christianity, a crime punishable by death under the Taliban's harsh Islamic regime.

Mr. Khan said such a verdict would be unlikely, given a recent decree by Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar stating that foreigners preaching Christianity should be detained from three to 10 days and then expelled from the country.

Mr. Khan described the daily life of the aid workers as one of fear mixed with boredom.

"There's lots of anxiety and lots of worry. Bombs fall and the building shakes."

Otherwise, they spend the day reading novels, playing cards and writing letters to their families. "They also pray a lot," Mr. Khan said.

The group's six women share a single concrete cell with bunk beds and an exit to a courtyard where they can exercise or simply sit in the sun likewise for the men, who share a separate cell.

"They have much, much better conditions than other prisoners," Mr. Khan said.

The case has become entangled with the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban for sheltering Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, leader of a global terrorist group that is believed behind the September 11 attacks.

About a week before the Oct. 7 onset of U.S. air strikes, President Bush made a series of public demands of the Taliban, which included a demand that the aid workers be released.

"That really hurt our case," Mr. Khan said. "That's when politics entered into it."

But he said his biggest worry is the growing anger of Afghans over the continued bombing.

"With lots of civilian casualties, people are getting angrier and angrier. They view the bombing as terrorism, just like with the World Trade Center. They wouldn't care at all if they were killed in a bombing raid."

The eight are Americans Dayna Curry and Miss Mercer; four Germans, Katrin Jellnek, Margrit Stebner, Silke Durrkopf and George Taubmann; and Australians Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas.


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