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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