- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

KABUL — The chief judge trying an Afghan man who faces a death sentence for converting from Islam to Christianity defended the court’s autonomy yesterday amid reports the man could be freed.

Ansarullah Mawlavi Zada, the chief among three judges trying the case, asserted the autonomy of the court.

“We have constitution and law here. Nobody has the right to put pressure on us,” he said. International pressure against the case has been building, and the Afghan government may be rethinking the charges against Abdul Rahman. A government official and MSNBC said yesterday that Mr. Rahman may be freed within the next few days.

Senior clerics condemned Mr. Rahman as an apostate.

Mr. Rahman had “committed the greatest sin” by converting to Christianity and deserved to be killed, cleric Abdul Raoulf said in a sermon yesterday at Herati Mosque.

“God’s way is the right way, and this man whose name is Abdul Rahman is an apostate,” he told about 150 worshippers.

Another cleric, Asife Muhseni, told a gathering of preachers and intellectuals at a Kabul hotel that the Afghan president had no right to overturn the punishment of an apostate.

He demanded that clerics be able to question Mr. Rahman in jail to discover why he had converted to Christianity. He suggested it could have been the result of a conspiracy by Western nations or Jews.

Nevertheless, speculation grew yesterday that the death penalty would not be carried out. “He could be released soon,” an Afghan government official said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the case.

MSNBC, citing an Afghan diplomatic official it did not identify, said Mr. Rahman, 41, could be released Monday. The British Broadcasting Corp. said government officials were meeting today to discuss the case.

Senior clerics in the Afghan capital have voiced strong support for prosecuting Mr. Rahman and again warned yesterday they would incite people to kill him unless he reverted to Islam.

Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard, meanwhile, joined the chorus of Western leaders expressing outrage over the prosecution and said he would protest personally to President Hamid Karzai.

“This is appalling. When I saw the report about this I felt sick literally,” Mr. Howard told an Australian radio network yesterday. “The idea that a person could be punished because of their religious belief and the idea they might be executed is just beyond belief.”

Mr. Rahman faces the death penalty under Afghanistan’s Islamic laws for converting 16 years ago while working as a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Mr. Karzai’s office has declined to comment on the case, which has put the Afghan leader in an awkward position.

Mr. Karzai took power after the ouster of the hard-line Taliban regime in a U.S.-led war in late 2001 and he relies on international forces to maintain his still-shaky grip on the country. However, he could be reluctant to offend Islamic sensibilities at home or alienate religious conservatives wielding considerable power.

Diplomats have said the Afghan government is searching for a way to drop the case. On Wednesday, authorities said Mr. Rahman is suspected of being mentally ill and would undergo psychological examinations to determine whether he is fit to stand trial.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Mr. Karzai on Thursday, seeking a “favorable resolution” of the case. She said Washington looked forward to that “in the very near future.”

At a fruit market in Kabul, many ordinary Afghans said they supported the death penalty, but some wanted more investigation before meting out the punishment.

“In the past 30 years, so many Afghans have been killed in name of communism, Taliban and politics or for robbery. It’s enough Afghans killed,” said Ghulam Muhammad, 45, a former army officer. “Clerics should talk to [Mr. Rahman] and bring him to the right way,” he said.

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