Converted Christian Sentenced to Death in Afghanistan
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JEFFREY BROWN: Abdul Rahman was born a Muslim, but may die for becoming a Christian. The 41-year-old Afghan faces a death sentence for converting to Christianity. His conversion came in 1990 when he lived in Germany, but it was only revealed recently during a custody battle in Afghanistan.
Renunciation of Islam is a crime under Islamic law, known as Sharia. The new Afghanistan constitution guarantees religious freedom under international agreements, but also says no law can be contrary to Islamic principles. For his part, Rahman is unrepentant.
ABDUL RAHMAN: They want to sentence me to death, and I accept it, but I am not a deserter and not an infidel; I am a Christian, which means I believe in the trinity.
JEFFREY BROWN: Four and a half years after the radical Taliban was toppled from power, the case has raised questions in the West about Afghanistan. President Bush issued a forceful response yesterday during an appearance in West Virginia.
GEORGE W. BUSH: We have got influence in Afghanistan, and we are going to use it to remind them that there are universal values. It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another. We will deal with this issue diplomatically and remind people that there is something as universal as being able to choose religion.
JEFFREY BROWN: More than 200 American personnel have died and billions have been spent to help liberate, rebuild and modernize Afghanistan; 23,000 American troops remain stationed there, alongside large European and Canadian contingents working under NATO auspices.
Government officials of those nations have voiced profound concerns about the case. Some Western diplomats say the Afghan government has indicated it may diffuse the controversy by having Rahman declared mentally unfit for trial, but some hard-line clerics are calling for his execution regardless.
MAULAWI HAMIDULLAH: If this does not happen, then the people will decide for themselves. The government should take the decision; otherwise, the people will make their own decision, and they will act.
JEFFREY BROWN: Late today, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper that Abdul Rahman would not be harmed.
And for more, we go to Pamela Constable of the Washington Post. She covered Afghanistan from 1998 to 2004 and was last in the country in January. She is now the Post’s deputy foreign editor.
Pamela, tell us more first about Abdul Rahman, the circumstances of his becoming a Christian, and his arrest now.
PAMELA CONSTABLE: We know that he became a Christian after working for a Christian medical charity with Afghan refugees in Pakistan, perhaps in the late-1980s. Then, he moved to Germany and lived there for a number of years and only recently returned to Afghanistan.
We know that he was in a legal and personal dispute with family members back in Kabul, Afghanistan. And during that dispute, it came out publicly that he was a Christian, and he was arrested.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, who is trying him and what law is being applied?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: He’s being tried in a public security court, which is neither a civil nor a criminal court; it’s a very unusual court, which only special crimes would come before. He’s being tried under Islamic law, which makes it an offense, and a potentially capital offense, to renounce or leave Islam for another religion.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what about this clash between Islamic law and the new constitution? Is it at all clear which comes first?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: It’s quite ambiguous. The constitution was a very difficult charter to write. It took a very long time. There was heavy rewriting of it and great debate within Afghanistan as to how much it should stress Islamic law versus civil law and also how much it should stress adherence to international civil rights conventions.
It is a hodgepodge document that tries to make everyone happy. It says that Afghan governments should and citizens should support and go by international human rights conventions, but it also says that no law in Afghanistan should be contrary to the principles of Islam, which include the crime of death for apostasy.
JEFFREY BROWN: And has this been tested? Or how unusual is a case like this?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: It’s quite unusual. As far as I know, it’s never been tested in recent years, certainly not since the Taliban was overthrown in late 2001. There have been some other cases and some other actions before Afghan courts relating to people that have questioned or challenged principles in Islam, but, as far as I know, no one has been tried for conversion.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as we have seen, there is a very high-level campaign under way to stop a prosecution. Do you think this has taken the Afghans by surprise? And what kind of leverage do Western governments have?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: That’s a complicated question. Obviously, at some levels, there’s a great deal of leverage, in terms of military defending the country, which is being done by international troops, and in terms of economic aid, which has been to the tune of many billions since the Taliban regime was overthrown.
On the other hand, it’s a sovereign country with an elected government, with a separation of powers, with an independent judiciary, and even American officials, although they’re very disturbed by what’s happening, have stopped short of asking the government to take action beyond simply registering their concerns.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you said there’s a separation of powers there. Who makes up the judiciary today in Afghanistan? We saw a judge in the case today say that the judges would not bow to outside pressure. Who are these judges?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: That’s right. There’s a great difference between the executive, led by President Karzai, and the parliament, which has a wide diversity of members, and the judiciary, which tends to include rather conservative Islamic clerics, especially at the top in the Supreme Court.
It is seen as the branch of government that sees itself as a protector of Islam and Islamic principles and it has not been shy in speaking out strongly when it thinks that those principles are being violated.
JEFFREY BROWN: And so is there — what kind of pressure is President Karzai under internally?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: I would think he’d be under a great deal of pressure internally not to cave in to what is seen as Western or foreign pressure. This is a very traditional, conservative, Muslim society in which virtually everyone is a Muslim, except India-born Hindus and Sikhs, and in which people take Islamic law very, very seriously and very personally; it’s something they feel very emotional about.
So it would be quite difficult, I think, for him to overrule a high court ruling in this case. Although, as we’ve seen, there are efforts under way To find a diplomatic solution.
JEFFREY BROWN: And what have you heard about Mr. Rahman’s mental state and to what degree that might now play a case in how this ends up?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: It is being said in Afghanistan that he is mentally disturbed or imbalanced; it is not clear from the outside because very few people have been able to speak to him directly. The press just had a few minutes with him, I believe, yesterday.
It’s not clear. He says he’s not crazy. He says he’s just a believer in Christianity. Prosecutors and other officials are beginning to say that he’s mentally unbalanced. We’re not sure whether that is the case or whether it’s something that’s being said in order to find a graceful way out of the problem.
JEFFREY BROWN: And getting out of the problem, could that mean a jail sentence or exile, or do we know at this case?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: It could mean any of those things. It could mean dropping the case; it could mean sending him into exile; it could mean putting him in some sort of a mental institution; it could mean a number of things.
I think what, if I had to guess, I’d say it’s likely at this point that he probably would not be put to death but, in fact, might conceivably be kept in jail or given some other punishment, if that were possible.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Pamela Constable of the Washington Post, thanks very much.
PAMELA CONSTABLE: You’re welcome.