By Stefan J. Bos
Special correspondent to ASSIST News Service
"If they have broken the law and should be hanged, then we will punish them like that," the Afghan Islamic Press quoted Taliban Chief Justice Mawlawi Noor Mohammad Saqib as saying.
"We will punish them according to the laws they have broken," he said about the aid workers, who were arrested August 5th on charges of spreading Christianity in mainly Islamic Afghanistan. The Chief Justice made the comments as Afghanistan's first ever trial against people accused of preaching the Gospel entered its second day.
Earlier Taliban officials had suggested that the eight workers, two Americans, four Germans and two Australians, could be expelled after serving an unspecified jail term. It was unclear whether the conflicting statements were meant as psychological pressure on the foreigners' 16 Afghan colleagues to renounce their fate in Christ.
The Taliban Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has reportedly said that any Afghan convicted of converting to Christianity would be spared the death penalty only "if they repented," within three days after the verdict. But a Ministry official stressed that these Christians still face other punishments "for betraying their religion and traditions."
The United States is pressing the Taliban for diplomatic access to the trial, Voice of America radio said. However U.S., German and Australian in Kabul said they have been unable to contact Taliban judicial authorities since last week. Diplomats waited 30 minutes Wednesday, September 5, outside the Supreme Court building in the heart of the Afghan Capital Kabul, surrounded by armed Taliban soldiers and journalists.
Helmut Landes, consular officer of the German Embassy in neighboring Pakistan, told reporters that the diplomats decided to take the initiative and approach the Chief Justice, "after six days of not getting access to the competent authorities in Afghanistan."
But Landes and his colleagues from Australia and the United States departed frustrated, the Associated Press news agency reported.
"Please pass on the message to the chief justice that we need to know the procedure, so we can pass it on or have it passed on to the detainees," said Alistair Adams, first secretary at Australia's Embassy in Pakistan, before leaving the Supreme Court building.
In addition to the diplomats, the parents of the two American detained women, Dayna Curry (29) and Heather Mercer (24), failed in their attempts to watch the legal procedures. They visited their children in prison last weekend, and have appealed to the Taliban regime to release them. The Taliban Chief Justice said the eight foreign aid workers being tried on charges of preaching Christianity could hire foreign defense lawyers.
"If they choose, they can even hire foreign, non-Muslim lawyers," the Afghan Islamic Press quoted him as saying.
But Western diplomats and aid workers have questioned the fairness of the trial, which is taking place behind closed doors in a country widely criticized for its poor record on human rights.
There are fears that the Shelter Now affair will have a further negative impact on aid in Afghanistan, where millions of people are suffering because of wars and international sanctions against the autocratic regime.