Monday, March 27, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan — A court yesterday dismissed the case against an Afghan man facing execution for converting from Islam to Christianity, officials said, paving the way for his release.

The move eased pressure from the West, but raised the issue of protecting Abdul Rahman after his release, as Islamic clerics have called for him to be killed.

One official said freedom might come as soon as today for Mr. Rahman, who became a Christian in the 1990s while working for an aid group in neighboring Pakistan.

Muslim extremists, who have demanded death for Mr. Rahman as an apostate for rejecting Islam, warned the decision would touch off protests across the country. Some clerics previously vowed to incite Afghans to kill Mr. Rahman if he was let go.

Mr. Rahman was moved to Kabul’s notorious high-security Policharki prison Friday after inmates at a jail in central Kabul threatened him, according to Policharki’s warden, Gen. Shahmir Amirpur.

Gen. Amirpur said Mr. Rahman had been asking guards for a Bible, but they had none to give him. “He looks very calm. But he keeps saying he is hearing voices,” Gen. Amirpur said.

Mr. Rahman was in solitary confinement in a tiny concrete cell next to a senior prison guard’s office. A reporter who toured the prison was shown the cell door, but was barred from speaking or otherwise communicating with him.

A senior guard said inmates and many guards had not been told of Mr. Rahman’s identity because of fears they might attack him.

But Gen. Amirpur vouched for the prisoner’s safety. “We are watching him constantly. This is a very sensitive case so he needs high security.”

The case set off an outcry in the United States and other nations that helped oust the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001 and provide aid and military support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. President Bush and others insisted Afghanistan protect personal beliefs.

A Supreme Court spokesman, Abdul Wakil Omeri, said the case had been dismissed because of “problems with the prosecutors’ evidence.” He said several of Mr. Rahman’s relatives testified he is mentally unstable and prosecutors have to “decide if he is mentally fit to stand trial.”

Another Afghan official involved with the case said the court ruled there was insufficient evidence and returned the case to prosecutors for further investigation. But he said Mr. Rahman would be released in the meantime.

“The court dismissed today the case against Abdul Rahman for a lack of information and a lot of legal gaps in the case,” the official said.

“The decision about his release will be taken possibly tomorrow,” the official added. “They don’t have to keep him in jail while the attorney general is looking into the case.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said she had not received official confirmation from Afghan authorities, told Fox News the announcement was “a very good step forward.”

She said on CNN’s “Late Edition” that the U.S. government had stressed to Mr. Karzai that religious freedom is a vital element of democracy.

“We’re going to stand firm for the principle that religious freedom and freedom of religious conscience need to be upheld, and we are hoping for a favorable resolution in this case,” Miss Rice said.

The uproar left Mr. Karzai in an awkward position. While trying to address concerns of foreign supporters, he also has sought not to alienate Islamic hard-liners, who wield considerable influence in Afghanistan.

The court’s decision was sure to anger at least some of the clerics who have strongly demanded that authorities enforce a provision in the country’s Islamic-based laws calling for the execution of Muslims who abandon the faith.

“There will be big protests across Afghanistan,” said Faiez Mohammed, a Sunni Muslim leader in the northern city of Kunduz. “This has shamed Afghanistan in the eyes of other Muslim countries.”

A Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it wasn’t clear whether the 41-year-old Mr. Rahman would be able to stay in Afghanistan or would have to move abroad.

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