- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan — An Afghan man who had faced the death penalty for abandoning Islam for Christianity went into hiding yesterday in Kabul after he was freed from prison. Italy said it may grant him asylum.

Abdul Rahman, 41, was released from the high-security Policharki prison on the outskirts of the capital late Monday after a court dropped charges of apostasy against him for lack of evidence and suspected mental illness. President Hamid Karzai had been under heavy international pressure to drop the case.

Muslim clerics condemned Mr. Rahman’s release, saying it was a “betrayal of Islam.” They threatened to incite violent protests.

Afghan Deputy Attorney General Mohammad Ishaq Aliko said Mr. Rahman was being held “at a special place and that is only for his own security,” Agence France-Presse reported.

“The United Nations and the Afghanistan human rights commission are both aware and involved,” Mr. Aliko said. Western diplomatic sources said it was thought the Christian convert was being held at a U.N. compound in Kabul.

U.S. officials have said they would help find Mr. Rahman a country that would provide him a “safe haven,” but would not comment on whether U.S. forces were helping protect Mr. Rahman in Afghanistan.

“We are working with the appropriate authorities to ensure his well-being,” a State Department spokeswoman said yesterday.

The Italian government said Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini will use a Cabinet meeting today to press for Mr. Rahman to be granted asylum there.

Italy has close ties with Afghanistan, whose former king, Muhammad Zahir Shah, was allowed to live with his family in exile in Rome for 30 years. The former royals returned to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

An Italian diplomat in Kabul said no one from the Italian mission had been in contact with Mr. Rahman, but they had been assured his health was all right.

Mr. Rahman was put on trial last week for converting 16 years ago while he was a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan. He faced the death penalty under Afghanistan’s Islamic laws.

The case caused 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 Mr. Karzai.

The outrage put Mr. Karzai in a difficult position because he also risked offending religious sensibilities in Afghanistan, where senior Muslim clerics have been united in calling for Mr. Rahman to be executed.

“This is a betrayal of Islam and the entire Afghan nation by our government,” said Hamiddullah, a senior cleric in Kabul. “This will have very dangerous consequences for the government. Muslim leaders will react very strongly.”

However, a preacher in northwestern Badghis province said the country’s religious leaders should not incite violence. “Clerics shouldn’t be calling for people to riot and damage our country,” Mohammed Usman said.

• Staff writer David R. Sands contributed to this article from Washington.

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