Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Updated: 12:42 p.m.

KABUL, Afghanistan - An Afghan man facing a possible death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity may be mentally unfit to stand trial, a state prosecutor said.

Abdul Rahman, 41, has been charged with rejecting Islam, a crime under this country’s Islamic laws. His trial started last week and he confessed to becoming a Christian 16 years ago. If convicted, he could be executed.

But prosecutor Sarinwal Zamari said questions have been raised about his mental fitness.

“We think he could be mad. He is not a normal person. He doesn’t talk like a normal person,” he told The Associated Press.

Moayuddin Baluch, a religious adviser to President Hamid Karzai, said Mr. Rahman would undergo a psychological examination.

“Doctors must examine him,” he said. “If he is mentally unfit, definitely Islam has no claim to punish him. He must be forgiven. The case must be dropped.”

It was not immediately clear when he would be examined or when the trial would resume. Authorities have barred attempts by the AP to see Mr. Rahman and he is not believed to have a lawyer.

The Bush administration yesterday appealed to Afghanistan to spare the life of Mr. Rahman, but said the matter was one for the Afghan government and courts to decide. In a case that has sparked international outrage, the remarks of Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns were in sharp contrast to condemnations of the trial by lawmakers and by leading European allies.

Briefing reporters with Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah at his side, Mr. Burns said the U.S. government was watching the case of Abdul Rahman closely, but added, “This case is not in the competence of the United States government. It’s under the competence of the Afghan authorities.”

But the governments of Germany and Italy, which — like the United States — have substantial troop deployments in Afghanistan, lodged strong protests at the prospect of Mr. Rahman’s execution, with former Italian President Francesco Cossiga saying Italy should withdraw its 1,775 troops in Afghanistan if the death sentence is handed down.

The Italian Foreign Ministry said Rome will move “at the highest level … to prevent something which is incompatible with the defense of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

California Rep. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, demanded a strong official U.S. protest, calling the Rahman prosecution “outrageous” at a time when an international coalition of troops “are dying in defense of the Afghan government.”

At least two prominent conservative religious groups issued online messages that appealed to the Bush administration to help save the life of a man “who refuses to deny Christ.”

The American Family Association’s founder and chairman, Donald Wildmon, asked readers to e-mail President Bush asking him to intervene.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, took issue with a statement by State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, who called freedom of worship “an important element of any democracy.”

“Religious freedom is not just ‘an important element’ of democracy; it is its cornerstone,” Mr. Perkins declared.

A Kabul court confirmed Sunday that Mr. Rahman, 41, was facing a death sentence under Islamic Shariah law for converting to Christianity. The conversion, which happened 16 years ago when Mr. Rahman was employed by a Christian aid organization in Pakistan, came to light during a custody battle over his two children.

The case is a delicate one for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose government remains highly dependent on Western aid and arms. But Afghanistan is overwhelmingly Muslim, and the ousted Taliban government, a fundamentalist Islamic movement, could exploit the case if the charge against Mr. Rahman is dropped.

Mr. Abdullah, in Washington this week for talks on deepening strategic and economic ties with the United States, said, “I know this is a sensitive issue, and we know the concerns of the American people.”

He said the Afghan Embassy had received hundreds of messages about the case.

But he insisted that the case was a legal one involving Mr. Rahman and his family.

“The government of Afghanistan has nothing to do with it,” he said.

Afghanistan’s constitution is based on Islamic Shariah law, which many argue forbids Muslims to convert to any other faith. The Afghan judiciary is considered a bastion of conservative orthodoxy, largely unreformed despite the ouster of the Taliban more than four years ago.

Prosecutor Abdul Wasi told the Associated Press that the capital case against Mr. Rahman would be dropped — if the defendant would convert back to Islam.

“We are Muslims, and becoming a Christian is against our laws,” Mr. Wasi said.

“He must get the death penalty.”

Mr. Burns and State Department officials were clearly struggling to condemn the prosecution without causing a major break with a vital U.S. ally. Mr. Burns said the administration would demand “transparency” in the trial and noted that Afghanistan’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion for all citizens.

“While we understand the complexity of the case and certainly respect the sovereignty of the Afghan authorities, from an American point of view, people should be free to choose their religion and should not suffer any severe penalties, certainly not death, for having made a personal choice as to what religion to follow,” he said.

• David R. Sands contributed to this report.

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