Christian Convert in Limbo After Release from Afghan Prison

The Afghan man who faced the death penalty for his conversion to Christianity has disappeared into hiding in Kabul, just hours after his release from prison. Italy says it may give Abdul Rahman asylum since an Afghan court dropped charges against him.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Italy, today, said it would be glad to give asylum to the Afghan man who had been facing the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity. The Afghan courts dismissed the case against Abdul Rahman him earlier this week, citing a lack of evidence. Abdul Rahman was set free yesterday. His release sparked an outcry among Afghans who say their government has caved in to Western countries trying to change Afghan laws and values.

NPR's Rachel Martin reports from Kabul.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

Last Sunday, prosecutors asked the judge to dismiss the charges and allow further investigation into several factors of the case, including whether or not Abdul Rahman is mentally stable enough to stand trial. The judge dismissed the charges, sparking outrage among some Islamic clerics and Afghans, who say Abdul Rahman should be killed, and accused the court of releasing him because of international pressure. Hayatullah Pacha Al-Hashima is the Deputy Minister of Justice. He says the decision to release Abdul Rahman shows that the court is handling the case with considered scrutiny.

Mr. HAYATULLAH PACHA AL-HASHIMI (Deputy Minister of Justice, Afghanistan): Prosecutors office and court found some reasons to release that person so that means that there is something good in handling it. And, of course, the case may not be finalized yet, it may require more investigation and more thoughts to be given to. That shows that they're doing justice to the case.

MARTIN: But many Afghans say this case illustrates the injustice of Afghanistan's legal system.

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MARTIN: Twenty-two-year-old Abdul Mateen(ph) owns a clock shop on a bustling corner in downtown Kabul. He says the decision to release Abdul Rahman was a big mistake that will eat away at people's faith in Afghanistan's democratic institutions.

Mr. ABDUL MATEEN (Resident and Business Owner, Kabul, Afghanistan): (Through translator) If he was tried according to the constitution, it should have been a much better idea for the government. It would have made government stronger and it would have helped stability in the country.

MARTIN: His friend and co-worker Rahmatullah Nassiry(ph) says he understands that the international community, and particularly the United States, is in Afghanistan to help rebuild and secure the country, but he says a case like this reveals ulterior motives.

Mr. RAHMATULLAH NASSIRY (Resident, Kabul, Afghanistan): (Through translator) They want to convert our country to a Christian country. So, it's not a good idea for the foreigners to interfere in this case. We have got our own law. We have got our own judges and whatever they decide or whatever verdict they issue, that's right.

MARTIN: International pressure on this issue has come from the top. Last week President Bush implored the Afghan government to respect its international commitments to protect the freedom of religion and Pope Benedict asked for Abdul Rahman's release. Francesc Vendrell is the European Union's special representative for Afghanistan and has been working in the country since 2000.

He says this case illustrates very real contradictions in the Afghan constitution when it comes to Shariah law and human rights protections, especially when dealing with religious conversion. And while he understands the international outcry over the issue, he says it's time to start taking concrete steps towards making Afghanistan's legal system something that stands up to international scrutiny and the expectations of the Afghan people.

Mr. FRANCESC VENDRELL (European Union Special Representative to Afghanistan): I would, of course, favor a much-a quiet approach, in which we convey our views quietly to the Afghan authorities. And then we work in a quiet way towards establishing a judiciary that may well, of course, be Muslim but which functions along secular lines.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Kabul.

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