Accused Workers Plead Innocent
By KATHY GANNON Associated Press Sept. 8, 2001 KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Smiling at her mother, Dayna Curry mouthed the words ``I love you'' before leaving the Taliban court where she and seven other foreign aid workers pleaded innocent Saturday to charges of preaching Christianity in devoutly Muslim Afghanistan. Heather Mercer, 24, the only other American on trial, clutched her father's hand throughout the hourlong proceeding in a stark room decorated with verses from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, two swords, a calendar depicting a U.S. missile attack on Afghanistan and a leather strap used for public floggings. Occasionally she fiddled with the giant blue shawl that covered her head. Saturday marked the aid workers' first appearance in court and in public since their arrest in early August. They face jail and expulsion if convicted. Chief Justice Noor Mohammed Saqib told the defendants, who also include four Germans and two Australians, that they have the right to a lawyer. The lawyer, Saqib explained, speaking very slowly and deliberately, can be Afghan or foreign, Muslim or non-Muslim. His comments suggested the trial, in its fifth day, could last at least several more days. On Saturday, the aid workers were driven to the Taliban Supreme Court in a white van accompanied by a truckload of turbaned Taliban soldiers, armed with Kalashnikov rifles. Six of the aid workers are women, all of whom were draped in giant shawls in accordance with Islamic custom. ``Please leave me alone,'' said Curry, 29, when reporters asked whether she was afraid. The proceedings were held in Saqib's office. Seated on chairs lined up in front of Saqib's wooden desk - piled high with books, files and the white flag of the hard-line Islamic Taliban rulers - the aid workers were first asked to identify themselves by nationality. First the American women stood. Mercer gave his daughter a gentle nudge to stand. Then the Australians raised their hands, then the Germans did as well. They filled out forms they didn't understand, written in Persian. They whispered among themselves and finally asked a Taliban translator for assistance. The forms simply identified them by name, father's name, birthplace and education. For an hour Saqib, speaking through an interpreter, tried to explain the legal process. But in the end it wasn't clear if the defendants understood. The aid workers complained about their isolation and the lack of information they had received. ``Relatives have come all the way from America and Australia and they have been given barely five minutes to talk to (us),'' said George Taubmann, one of the German detainees. ``We have seen the diplomats only once.'' ``A lot of us don't even know why we are in prison,'' he said. ``We have heard we were accused of all these things. It is simply not true. We have not converted anybody. We are shocked about all the accusations. We have not had a chance to defend ourselves.'' The aid workers were arrested in early August, and their Christian-based organization, Shelter Now International, was shut down. Sixteen Afghan employees of the group were also arrested, but they are to be tried separately. The Taliban have issued an edict making jail and expulsion the punishment for a foreigner caught proselytizing. The punishment for an Afghan Muslim who either converts to or preaches another religion is death. Since Tuesday, Saqib and 14 other Supreme Court judges have been sifting through boxes of evidence of their alleged proselytizing, including Christian literature translated into local languages. The Taliban's religious police say they confiscated the materials from Shelter Now offices in Afghanistan's beleaguered capital, Kabul. Saqib said the first phase of the legal process involved the examination of the evidence. Next the aid workers decide whether they want a lawyer or if they will choose to defend themselves. Deliberations to decide innocence or guilt, it seems, will be carried out by a group of eminent judges and Islamic clerics, but the final decision and punishment rests with the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Western diplomats from the United States, Germany and Australia pleaded with the judge for greater access to their nationals. ``I honestly beg you to give us greater consular access so they can be sure they know their legal rights and can defend themselves,'' said Helmut Landes, consular officer at the German Embassy in Pakistan.
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