Taliban Might Consider Prisoner Swap

By Sayed Salahuddin

KABUL (Sept. 9) - The Supreme Court of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban on
Sunday completed the fifth day of the trial of eight foreign aid workers
accused of promoting Christianity, sayig it awaited word on how they wanted
to defend themselves.

Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil was quoted on Sunday as
saying his hardline movement might consider swapping the eight aid workers
for an Islamic militant jailed in the United States, but only after
completion of the trial.

Chief Justice Noor Mohammad Saqib said judges had resumed sifting evidence,
but the accused had not been recalled because it was not clear how they
wanted to handle their defense.

Reporters were barred from the proceedings, which took place inside Kabul's
four-storey Supreme Court building.

Three Pakistan-based diplomats from Australia, Germany and the United
States, in Kabul to offer consular assistance to the four Germans, two
Australians and two Americans, said they had requested meetings with the
detainees to discuss legal help.

The eight foreigners and 16 Afghans, all from German-based Christian relief
agency Shelter Now International (SNI), were arrested five weeks ago on
charges that could carry the death penalty in Islamic Afghanistan.

On Saturday the foreigners made their first court appearance since the trial
began and said they were innocent.

"During the investigation we were accused of many things but that was not
true," SNI's detained Afghanistan director Georg Taubmann told the court.
"We have never converted anybody. We are shocked with the accusations."

It was the first time any of the detainees had been seen or spoken in public
since their arrest. They were given papers asking if they wanted to defend
themselves or hire lawyers.

Saqib said they should send the legal forms back quickly.


German diplomat Helmut Landes told Reuters that he and his American and
Australian colleagues had handed a letter to the Taliban foreign ministry to
be passed on to the Supreme Court.

He said the court inquiry document was written in Dari (Afghan Persian)
which the detainees could not read.

"Everybody recognizes that we must see the detainees. Only now we have to
set the venue and the time," he added.

Saqib told Reuters earlier the court would decide whether to allow consular
access after reading the diplomats' petition.

The diplomats, three relatives of the detainees and foreign journalists were
allowed to attend the trial on Saturday.

There was no indication how long the case would last. The diplomats, whose
visas allow them to stay in Kabul to September 17, said the legal process
remained clouded in uncertainty.

Saqib said on Saturday the trial's "initial phase" would be followed by one
involving "a grand assembly of ulema (Muslim scholars)."

The detainees, who in court appeared healthy, have been identified as
Taubmann, Katrin Jelinek, Margrit Stebner and Silke Durrkopf, who are all
German; Australians Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas; plus Americans Dayna Curry
and Heather Mercer.


Muttawakil, the Taliban foreign minister, said Afghan authorities would
consider trading the aid workers for an Egyptian militant serving a life
sentence in the United States.

"After consideration and research, a decision will be taken," the Taliban's
Shariat Daily quoted him as saying.

"But above all we need to wait for the decision of the Supreme Court (in the
trial)," he added.

Islamist sources outside Afghanistan said last week the Taliban might be
willing to free the eight aid workers if Washington allowed the ailing
Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, jailed for life for planning guerrilla attacks, to
go to Afghanistan.

Relatives of the blind Muslim cleric said they had written to the Taliban
and the State Department. Muttawakil said the Taliban had only heard media
reports of the prisoner swap idea.

"The request requires clarification and comprehension. We have not been in
touch with the Americans about this," he said.

Sheikh Omar, spiritual leader of Egypt's main militant group a-Gama's
al-Islamiya (Islamic Group), was convicted in 1995 of plotting to blow up
the World Trade Centerf and bomb the United Nations. Washington has not
commented on the proposed swap.

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