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Afghan Christian convert awaits freedom

Written by: Staff

Kabul, Mar 28: An Afghan man who had been facing the death penalty for converting to Christianity awaited freedom today after the United States said he would be released and the United Nations said he was seeking asylum abroad.

The man, Abdur Rahman, 40, was jailed this month for denying Islam. Judicial officials said he could face trial under Islamic sharia law that stipulates death as punishment for apostasy.

The case provoked an international outcry with the United States and other staunch Afghan allies demanding Rahman's freedom of religion be respected and he be released.

The Western-backed government has been seeking a face-saving way out of the crisis, satisfying Western pleas for the man's freedom while appeasing conservative clerics at home who have been demanding Rahman be punished under Islamic law.

A senior judicial official said on Tuesday Rahman still had to undergo psychiatric tests and would be released if he was found unstable.

''Yes, yes, definitely, he will be released, certainly. A patient does not deserve punishment,'' Deputy Attorney General Mohammad Ishaq Aloko told Reuters.

He said Rahman had been moved from Kabul's main prison to a medical facility. He declined to elaborate but said more tests had to be done.

''The doctors advise that he needs to be checked over several days, at various times,'' he said.

Rahman became 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 relatives told authorities he had converted to Christianity following a dispute involving two daughters, officials said.

The United Nations has been working with President Hamid Karzai's government on a solution and said late yesterday that Rahman had sought asylum abroad.

Aloko said deliberations on his asylum request were going on.

Rahman's release, no matter what the grounds, is almost certain to spark protests.

A group including clerics and a former prime minister said last week the government risked rebellion if it caved in to Western pressure.

About 1,000 angry protesters marched through the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Monday chanting ''Death to America'' and ''Death to the convert Abdur Rahman''.

Afghanistan saw violent protests last month over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published in European newspapers, and last year over a magazine report about desecration of the Koran.

The Taliban, battling US and other foreign troops since their overthrow in 2001, also called for Rahman's death.

A Taliban commander, who declined to be identified, said a Taliban council had issued a fatwa, or religious decree, saying Rahman must be killed.


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