- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan — The trial of eight foreign aid workers — including two Americans — accused of preaching Christianity in this deeply Muslim nation began yesterday in the austere office of the Supreme Court chief justice.
Quranic verses, a calendar depicting a U.S. missile attack on Afghanistan, two swords and a leather strap used for public floggings were the only adornments on the walls of the office of Chief Justice Noor Mohammed Saqib. The tables were piled high with books on Islamic law.
For four hours the mostly elderly judges sifted through evidence and debated the law as it applies to the eight aid workers — the two Americans, four Germans and two Australians.
The trial, which Justice Saqib said would be closed despite earlier promises that it would be open to journalists and relatives of the accused, is expected to continue today and last several days at least.
[In Washington, a State Department official said the United States was seeking permission for a U.S. diplomat to attend the trial and to help the accused obtain legal counsel.
["We call upon the Taliban to ensure the proceedings follow the rule of law and are fair and transparent," said the official, who asked not to be named.]
The eight foreign employees of Shelter Now International, a German-based Christian group, have been accused by Afghanistan's Taliban militia leadership of trying to convert Muslims — a crime that carries the penalty of jail and expulsion for foreigners. The workers were arrested four weeks ago.
"It is a matter of concern for the whole Islamic world, not just the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," Justice Saqib said.
Justice Saqib said the foreigners will eventually be allowed to speak in their own defense. He would not say when they would be called, but said they will be allowed to have a lawyer.
Diplomats from the United States, Germany and Australia as well as the family members of the two jailed American women were not informed about the start of the trial.
"We are certainly going to request" details about the trial procedure, said David Donahue, consul-general at the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Pakistan.
"We would like to meet anyone in the government who can provide us with the information, so we know how we can best advise our nationals," he said.
Justice Saqib said he was willing to explain the procedure to the diplomats if they wanted to come to the Supreme Court building and meet with him.
The eight foreign aid workers were arrested along with 16 Afghan staff members. It's not known when the trial of the Afghan employees will be held. For an Afghan, the penalty for proselytizing is death.
For the parents of the jailed Americans, Dayna Curry, 29, and Heather Mercer, 24, the wait has been fraught with uncertainty.
On Monday, John Mercer celebrated his birthday quietly while waiting at the U.N. guest house for news about his daughter.

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