Lawyers given time to prepare aid workers defence

ISLAMABAD, 2 October 2001 (IRIN) - The lawyers for the eight foreign aid workers
held by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban Islamic Movement since August on
charges that they tried to convert Afghan Muslims to Christianity have been
given up to 15 days to prepare their defence.

The Pakistani lawyers for the accused, Atif Ali Khan and Besmillah Jan, met
their clients for the first time in the Afghan capital, Kabul, at the
weekend, AFP reported. According to media reports, The lawyers were told at
a court hearing on Sunday that they could meet the defendants, and were
given their first opportunity to assess the evidence collected by the
Taliban against the accused, some of it seized from their homes and offices.

Khan told media in Afghanistan that the case was "unique".

"There is no precedent to date. This is a very unique case, so the
circumstances are going to be very different from any other case they have
tried over here," Khan was quoted as saying.

Immediately before his departure for Kabul, Khan had told IRIN: "I'm hopeful
and I think we have a very good case." Although western diplomats in the
Pakistani capital, Islamabad, have remained less than optimistic about the
fate of the accused, Khan said: "We have been assured of all cooperation...
the charges, the evidence, anything that we need will be provided to us."

The trial of the aid workers - four Germans, two Australians and two
Americans - resumed on Sunday after a three week suspension, following
uncertainty over what would happen in Afghanistan in the wake of the 11
September terrorist attacks on the US.

The US has said that the prime suspect is Saudi-born dissident Osama bin
Laden, who is being sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban has
so far refused to give him up. There has been growing speculation that air
strikes against Bin Laden's training camps and key installations inside
Afganistan are imminent.

The Taliban chief justice, Nur Mohammad Saqib, told the Sunday court hearing
that the threat of a US attack on Afghanistan would not influence the court.

"I now want to say that to you again that the current developments in the
face of America's possible attack will not affect the proceedings of the
trial," Saqib is reported to have told the eight. He said they would be
tried on the basis of Islamic law. "There will be no discrimination or
injustice against you," he told them.

The charges of proselytising brought against the accused, who all worked for
the aid agency Shelter Now International, could carry the death sentence.
All eight have denied the charges.

The aid workers, dressed in traditional Afghan clothes, were brought to
court by armed Taliban fighters, according to media reports. They seemed
well, although one of the women was said to be suffering from a mild
illness.

Western officials have not seen the aid workers since 1 September when some
family members were allowed to visit them. Media sources on Monday quoted
the Taliban as saying the family members would be granted visas and
visitation rights.

There has been no word on the fate of 16 Afghan Muslims who worked for the
aid agency and who were arrested at the same time.

Meanwhile, efforts were continuing on Tuesday to secure the release of a
British journalist held by the Taliban on suspicion of spying. The
journalist, Yvonne Ridley, had entered the country disguised as an Afghan
woman to report on the plight of refugees.

The British Foreign Office has said it has been in contact with the Taliban,
and urged the movement to resolve the situation quickly. "We have not had
any independent confirmation on these reports. We have urged the Taliban to
treat her well, but we realise that relies on who is holding her," a
spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said.

Ridley, the 43-year-old chief reporter of the UK-based 'Sunday Express'
newspaper, was detained on Friday with her two guides near Jalalabad, about
15 km from the Pakistan border, the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. The
AIP said the Taliban had sent a special investigating team from Kabul to
question Ridley.

"What we want to find out is whether this woman is really a journalist, or
working for some intelligence agency," AIP quoted a Taliban official as
saying.

A spokesman for the 'Sunday Express' said any suggestion that Ridley was a
spy was "absurd and without foundation".

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