Afghanistan Drops Case Against Christian Convert

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An Afghan man who had faced the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity has been released from prison after the case was dropped. The United Nations says it's trying to find a country willing to take him. Muslim clerics have called for the man to be killed. Renee Montagne talks with the BBC's Sanjoy Majumder.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Afghanistan, the case of the man facing the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity has been dropped; and Abdul Rahman has been released from prison. He's seeking asylum outside Afghanistan, and the United Nations is said to be working to find a country willing to take him. The prosecutors in the case have released a letter saying Rahman is mentally unfit to stand trial. The case has brought international protests, including intervention by the Bush administration.

For a look at how the case is playing out in Afghanistan, we turn to the BBC's Sanjoy Majumder in Kabul.

Hello.

SANJOY MAJUMDER (BBC Online Editor for South Asia): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What has been the reaction there to Rahman's release? Protests?

MAJUMDER: Well, news of the release is just trickling in. The whole operation has been kept very secret. Mr. Rahman was released late last night, Monday night from a prison that he was kept in on the outskirts of Kabul. The media were kept well away. Clearly, the administration was concerned about how this was going to play out domestically. They wanted no images of Mr. Rahman leaving the prison. He's now in the custody of Justice Ministry officials, while the U.N. and the Afghan government decides what they can do with him.

MONTAGNE: And what finally led to the decision to free Rahman? Given all the pressure, what was the key thing?

MAJUMDER: Well, prosecutors and the trial judge has been telling us that, basically, they've decided that he is unfit to stand trial. They said that medical examinations suggest that he is mentally unstable. They've also raised questions over his nationality. One questioning whether he is, indeed, an Afghan or actually is a national of another country.

But these are technical reasons. And many people here believe that the real reason behind the release is the intense pressure that the government found itself under. Much of the criticism that poured in from the West, from the United States and other NATO countries, are from countries who have committed troops on the ground in Afghanistan, so in some measure, are protecting the Afghan government. And the President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai effectively had to move very quickly to contain any damage that he may have suffered internationally.

MONTAGNE: Will this put him, President Karzai, in rather difficult position? What? Appearing to bow to international pressure?

MAJUMDER: Well, certainly it's a decision that will not go down well in some sections of Afghan society, particularly the religious right. Hamid Karzai already has an image of being a pro-Western leader. Some people believe he is much too easily persuaded by the United States. Many will be dismayed at what they will perceive as an apparent caving into pressure from the West.

But there are others who believe that nothing was served by carrying this case forward. They believe Abdul Rahman should have been freed, and the case shouldn't have come up in the first place. And certainly, the president would be hoping that public opinion stays, stays that way.

MONTAGNE: BBC reporter Sanjoy Majumder in Kabul, where the man facing execution for converting to Christianity has been freed.

Thank you very much.

MAJUMDER: Thank you.

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