Afghan Christian Released from Prison, Goes into Hiding

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A Christian convert in Muslim Afghanistan is released from prison and has gone into hiding. Afghan judicial officials say the charges against Abdel Rahman — which could have led to the death penalty — were dropped because he is mentally unfit to stand trial.


In Afghanistan the man who faced the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity has been set free. Charges against Abdul Rahman were dismissed on Sunday and today after he was set free, he was quickly whisked away to an undisclosed location. The United Nations is trying to help him find asylum in another country. Rahman was arrested last month and faced trial on charges of apostasy for his conversion, which is a violation punishable by death under Islamic Sharia law. NPR's Rachel Martin joins us now from Kabul. And Rachel, remind us please of the details of Mr. Rahman's case.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

Sure, 41-year-old Abdul Rahman was, as you said, arrested last month after authorities found out that he was a Christian. They found this out during a custody battle over his two daughters. Abdul Rahman did not deny the charge and said he converted to Christianity about 15 years ago, when he was working for a Christian Aid Organization in Pakistan.

Under Islamic law, this is a crime. Apostasy is a crime that can be punished by death. But Sunday the judge threw out the charges against Rahman saying that there was a lack of evidence. That generated wide spread protest in the North of the country. There were rallies and demonstrations calling for Abdul Rahman to be put to death.

BLOCK: There's been quite an international outcry over this case yet President Bush urging religious tolerance, Pope Benedict asking that Abdul Rahman be freed, this has put President Hamid Karzai in a bit of a tight spot.

MARTIN: It has indeed. On the one hand, Karzai and Afghanistan need the international community. They need NATO Troops and resources to secure and continue with reconstruction. In fact NATO is moving into the southern and eastern parts of the country this year in the more expanded presence. So Karzai can't just ignore when President Bush or the Pope gives some harsh criticism. On the other hand, Karzai can't afford to be seen as kowtowing to international pressure and abandoning Afghan law or being perceived to abandon Afghan laws whenever the international community puts on some pressure. Now many people here will tell you that this case is actually all about politics. It happens to coincide with nominations to fill the nine places on Afghanistan's Supreme Court. Those nominations are waiting parliamentary approval.

Analysts say that conservatives currently sitting on the courts, including the Chief Justice, have brought this case into the spotlight intentionally in order to flex their muscle and their Islamic credentials, so to speak. And curry favor with hardliners in the Parliament, who see the current government's relationship with the West as something that's corrupting Afghan society.

BLOCK: Rachel what happens now with Abdul Rahman? And if indeed he is granted asylum somewhere, where might he end up?

MARTIN: Well, people close to the case say there's a lot of frenzied negotiation going on behind closed doors. Some say Rahman could be taken to a foreign country where he could receive medical treatment. There were allegations earlier that Abdul Rahman could be mentally unstable. This could be means or justification for sending him abroad for treatment. He could also be granted asylum. Italian authorities have come forward and said that Italy might be somewhere that Abdul Rahman could be sent in safe haven, but it's still very much up in the air. Officials are trying to keep a tight lid on information, trying to downplay the issue out of security concerns. You have to remember this comes on the heels of the cartoon controversy out of Denmark. That controversy spurred widespread protests and demonstrations in Afghanistan in which several people died. And Afghanistan is still very raw from that controversy and any issue that appears to pit Islam against Western values could be a dangerous flashpoint.

BLOCK: NPR's Rachel Martin talking with us from Kabul. Rachel thanks very much.

MARTIN: Thank you.

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