- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan — Eight foreign workers on trial for preaching Christianity in Muslim Afghanistan pleaded not guilty yesterday in their first appearance before the Taliban's highest court.
The Taliban has issued an edict making the punishment for a foreigner caught proselytizing jail and expulsion. The punishment for an Afghan Muslim who either converts to or preaches another religion is death.
The workers said they were not guilty.
"We have heard we were accused of all these things. It is simply not true. We have not converted anybody," said George Taubmann, a German. "We are shocked about all the accusations. We have not had a chance to defend ourselves."
Chief Justice Noor Mohammed Saqib told the eight aid workers — two Americans, four Germans and two Australians — they have the right to a lawyer, who can either be Afghan or foreign, Muslim or non-Muslim.
His comments suggested the trial, in its fifth day yesterday, could last at least several more days.
The aid workers were driven to the Taliban Supreme Court in a white van accompanied by a truckload of gun-toting Taliban soldiers. Six of the aid workers are women, all of whom were draped in giant shawls in accordance with Islamic custom.
"Please leave me alone," one of two jailed American women, 29-year-old Dayna Curry, said when reporters asked whether she was afraid.
The other American, Heather Mercer, 24, clutched her father's hand through most of the one-hour proceeding.
No date was set for a return appearance, but the court reconvenes today to continue considering evidence.
Miss Curry's mother, Nancy Cassell, of Thompson's Station, Tenn., and Ms. Mercer's father, John Mercer, of Vienna, Va., were united with their children at the court.
Mrs. Cassell was also wearing a large black shawl, her tense and worried face barely visible.
John Mercer held his arms around his daughter to help her through crush of journalists into a room in the courthouse where their daughters were being held.
The proceedings were held in the stark office of the chief justice, his walls adorned with verses from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, two swords and a leather strap used for public beatings, which are carried out by the Taliban for a number of lesser offenses.
As she left, Miss Curry mouthed the words "I love you" to her mother, who had sat behind her.
Three Western diplomats from the United States, Germany and Australia accompanied the aid workers.
David Donahue, consul-general at the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Pakistan, said he hoped he would continue to have access to the aid workers.
"It was certainly much better to have everyone in one place," he said.
Mr. Donahue and his colleagues from Australia and Germany have been in Kabul for nearly two weeks but have seen their detained nationals only once.
As a consular officer, Mr. Donahue said he has to be able to provide the two American women with information about lawyers that are available and discuss with them their legal options.
"This is the process anywhere in the world," he said.
The aid workers were arrested in early August, and their Christian-based organization, Shelter Now International, was shut down.
Sixteen Afghan employees of the group were also arrested, but they are to be tried separately.
Since Tuesday, the chief justice and 14 other Supreme Court justices have been sifting through boxes of evidence of their purported proselytizing, including Christian literature translated into local languages.
The hard-line Islamic group's religious police say they confiscated the materials from Shelter Now offices in Afghanistan's beleaguered capital, Kabul.
Chief Justice Saqib has refused to say what punishment could be imposed against the foreign workers, saying to do so would be "premature."
As he left the courtroom, Mr. Mercer told reporters: "I need to digest everything. I feel more comfortable to have seen my daughter."
The families of the two American women have been in Kabul for nearly two weeks and have seen their children just three times.

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