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Afghan Christian convert is released

Written by: Staff

KABUL, Mar 28 (Reuters) An Afghan Christian convert who faced a possible death sentence for denying Islam has been freed after a chorus of Western pleas that his religious freedom be respected, the Afghan justice minister today said.

Abdur Rahman, 40, was jailed this month for abandoning his faith. Judicial officials said he could have faced trial under Islamic sharia law stipulating death as punishment for apostasy.

Earlier a senior judicial official said that Rahman had been moved from Kabul's main prison to a medical facility but was still in the custody of judicial authorities and would undergo psychiatric tests.

Afghanistan's Western-backed government has been seeking a face-saving way out of the crisis, satisfying Western pleas for the man's freedom while appeasing cons3ervative clerics at home who have been demanding Rahman be punished under Islamic law.

The United Nations has been working with President Hamid Karzai's government on a solution and said late on Monday Rahman had requested asylum abroad, and it was hoped one of the countries involved in the controversy would accept him.

A U N spokesman declined to comment today.

U S embassy spokesman Lou Fintor welcomed the release and said arrangements regarding Rahman's welfare were being handled privately. Another foreign official, who declined to be identified, said Rahman's safety was a prime concern.

Protests against the release were expected, a security official 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.

Relatives later said Rahman had been suffering from mental problems, although he denied that.

"If the government doesn't kill him, people in all provinces will demonstrate," said one young man, Mujibur Rahman. "All Muslims will be anti-government." 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 yesterday 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 U S 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.

The United States appealed for calm.

"We understand the sensitivity of this case and urge everyone to remain calm and resist efforts to exploit the situation," Fintor said.


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