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Afghan judge says Christian convert case is flawed

Written by: Staff

KABUL, Mar 26 (Reuters) The judge presiding over the case of an Afghan man who could face the death penalty for converting to Christianity today said the case was flawed and would be sent back to prosecutors.

The row over the man, Abdur Rahman, 40, jailed this month for abandoning Islam, threatens to create a rift between Afghanistan and the United States and other Western backers who have been calling for the man's release.

''The case, because of some technical as well as legal flaws and shortcomings, has been referred back to the prosecutor's office,'' the judge, Ansarullah Mawlavizada, told Reuters.

He declined to elaborate or say if the review would delay the trial, which had been due to begin in coming days.

A prosecutor said Rahman's mental state would be examined tomorrow following suggestions that he may be mentally unstable.

Rahman, detained this month for converting to Christianity, told an Italian newspaper from his Kabul jail cell that he was ready to die for his new faith.

CIVIL AND ISLAMIC LAW Death is the punishment stipulated by sharia, or Islamic law, for apostasy -- abandoning the faith. The Afghan legal system is based on a mixture of civil and sharia law.

The government is trying to satisfy Western demands for the man's release, while not angering powerful conservatives at home who have demanded a trial and death sentence under Islamic law.

Officials in President Hamid Karzai's government declined to comment. ''I'm hopeful something will be worked out,'' said one.

Officials and analysts say they do not expect Rahman to be executed. The outcome could hinge on his mental state.

A spokesman for the Supreme Court said the mental examination had been ordered after Rahman's relatives said he suffered from mental problems -- something he denies.

Checks also had to be made to see if Rahman had a second nationality, the spokesman said, without elaborating.

Rahman told a preliminary hearing 10 days ago that he had become a Christian while working for an aid group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan 15 years ago. He later lived in Germany before returning to Afghanistan.

He was detained after his family told authorities he had converted, apparently following a dispute involving two daughters, a judicial official said.

''I DON'T WANT TO DIE'' US President George W Bush has urged Afghanistan to show it respects religious freedom and resolve the case quickly.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked on NBC's Meet the Press about a report that the case had been dismissed.

''The Afghans are working on it,'' she said. ''America has stood solidly for religious freedom as a bedrock, the bedrock of democracy, and we'll see, but I can't confirm that story.'' Several other countries with troops in Afghanistan, including Canada, Italy, Germany and Australia, have voiced concern. Some foreign critics have urged that their troops be withdrawn.

But the foreign pressure has only been met in Afghanistan by threats of rebellion if the government frees Rahman.

''I don't want to die. But if God decides, I am ready to face up to my choices, all the way,'' Rahman was quoted as saying in Sunday's La Repubblica newspaper.

The Italian newspaper conducted the interview by sending Rahman written questions via a human rights worker who visited him in jail outside Kabul.

Defying the conservative clamour, one newspaper -- Outlook -- made the first public call in Afghanistan for Rahman's release, saying the country could not ignore international opinion when it needed support to fight terrorism and rebuild.

Reuters OM BD2124

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