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Afghanistan to free convert facing death, US says

Written by: Staff

KABUL/WASHINGTON, Mar 28 (Reuters) Afghanistan will free a man who could have faced the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity after the West pressed Kabul for his release, a U.S. State Department spokesman said today.

But the prosecutor in charge of the case and Afghan presidential officials were not available for comment. U.N.

officials said the man was seeking asylum abroad, but a solution to the case was till some way off.

The case raised a storm of protests in the West, threatening to open a rift between Afghanistan and its Western backers who called for the man's release. About 1,000 angry Afghans protested on Monday and called for the man to be executed.

Abdur Rahman, 40, was jailed this month for rejecting Islam and converting to Christianity. Islamic sharia law prescribes the death penalty for apostasy -- abandoning the faith.

''He will be released,'' State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. ''I understand now that the details of his release and any potential onward travel are being handled as a private matter.'' The presiding judge said yesterday the case had flaws and referred it back to prosecutors and Rahman was to undergo psychiatric tests on Monday. But as evening fell on the Afghan capital, he was still in jail, officials said.

ASYLUM? President Hamid Karzai has been searching for a way to satisfy Western demands without angering powerful conservatives at home who have demanded a trial and death sentence under Islamic law.

The United Nations had been working with Karzai's government on a solution.

''Things aren't fully finalised, a solution is still some way off,'' said U.N. spokesman in Kabul, Adrian Edwards. ''However, we think things are fairly close and we hope to see something soon.'' One way could be for Rahman to travel abroad.

''Mr Rahman has asked for asylum outside Afghanistan,'' Edwards said. ''We expect this will be provided by one of the countries interested in a peaceful solution.'' Rahman 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. Checks were being made to see if he had a second nationality, an official said.

He was detained after his relatives told authorities he had converted to Christianity, apparently following a dispute involving two daughters.

U.S. President George W. Bush has urged Afghanistan to show it respects religious freedom and resolve the case quickly. Pope Benedict has called for clemency.

The United States has about 18,000 troops in Afghanistan and NATO members are sending more. Several other countries with troops in Afghanistan have raised their concerns.

Protesters in Mazar-i-Sharif chanted ''Death to America'' and ''Death to the convert Abdur Rahman''. One cleric, Abdul Asrar, said Afghanistan should be left to implement Islamic law.

''Otherwise, whichever country interferes in our internal affairs will be given the same lesson we gave the Soviet Union,'' he said, referring to the 1980s victory over Soviet forces.

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

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.

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