Lawyer for Christian Aid Workers Returns to Kabul; British Reporter Shared Women’s Cell Last Week
British Reporter Shared Women’s Cell Last Week
by Barbara G. Baker
ISTANBUL (Compass) — As aerial military strikes by U.S. forces continued to pound Afghanistan for the fourth consecutive day, the defense lawyer for eight Western relief workers imprisoned in Kabul left Pakistan this morning via the Khyber Pass to return to the Afghan capital.
According to the German headquarters of Shelter Now, Pakistani lawyer Atif Ali Khan was believed to be making the 10-hour trip overland with a companion.
Khan was hopeful that he would be able to submit his formal written defense to the Taliban Supreme Court tomorrow, German Foreign Ministry sources monitoring the case told Shelter Now. Travel visas for Khan and his interpreter were issued yesterday by the Taliban Embassy in Islamabad.
The eight jailed Christians include four Germans, two Australians and two Americans — six of them women. All staff members of the Christian humanitarian aid group Shelter Now, they are accused of preaching Christianity among Afghan Muslims, a capital offense under the strict Taliban interpretation of Islamic law.
Official Taliban sources confirmed last night from Kabul that all eight were safe and in “good spirits” in their current jail location.
Last weekend, the aid workers’ dilemma swung to the center stage of world news when hard-liners in the Taliban linked their fate to the impending American military action.
In a Foreign Ministry statement released October 6, the Taliban offered to release the eight prisoners, who include two Americans, if the United States stopped its “massive propaganda campaign of military action against the Afghan people.”
It was the first time the Taliban had linked the Christian defendants to the crisis over Osama bin Laden. It marked a flat contradiction of Supreme Court Justice Noor Mohammed Saqib’s pledge the previous week, reported by Agence France Press: “The present situation will have no impact on the court. This will be a fair trial.”
U.S. officials dismissed the conciliatory offer as a stalling tactic, repeating U.S. President George W. Bush’s firm refusal to negotiate with the Taliban.
The eight Westerners were detained 10 weeks ago after two of their number were allegedly caught showing a documentary film on the life of Jesus in an Afghan home. No contact has been allowed with Shelter Now’s 16 Afghan employees arrested at the same time, although the Taliban claim they will be tried separately.
The Christians’ trial before the Taliban Supreme Court was disrupted after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, when diplomats, relatives and all other foreigners in Afghanistan were ordered to leave the country.
But after their Pakistani attorney traveled to Kabul, another public hearing was held on September 30. There for the first time the specific charges filed against the eight Christians were read out, along with a list of materials confiscated as “evidence” against them.
Judge Saqib gave the lawyer 15 days to prepare his defense, guaranteeing him access to meet with his clients as needed. Khan told CNN on October 4, after he had reviewed an English translation of the charges, that they were “not that strong.”
“They talk about three or four people who have actually tried to convert people by going in the homes of Afghans,” Khan said. “The charges against the rest of them are not that compelling.” Khan had returned to Islamabad on October 5 to do legal research on the case.
Although Saqib reportedly told the lawyer that the parents of the American women were “most welcome” to return to Kabul to visit their daughters, the Taliban Embassy in Islamabad has so far declined to issue them visas.
WOMEN OF ‘TREMENDOUS INNER STRENGTH’
Meanwhile, Yvonne Ridley, the British journalist released into Pakistan last night by the Taliban after 10 days in captivity, confirmed that she had shared a cell briefly last week in Kabul with the six women relief workers.
“They’d been there for two months, and those women just had a tremendous inner strength,” Ridley declared in an article published by the “Daily Express” in London yesterday. Ridley described the cell where the six women were being held as “about 20 square yards, not even that big,” and noted that although the Taliban had cleaned it, “it was still squalid.”
Ridley said that one of the six Christians was on a hunger strike, and hadn’t eaten for 20 days. All of the detainees have suffered some from stomach problems, according to sources close to their families.
According to a handwritten fax last week from prisoner Diana Thomas to her pastor in Australia, the detainees have been moved to a location where they are able to cook their own meals and even order food from a nearby restaurant.
The Shelter Now Germany office has confirmed that they received new faxes from some of the detainees yesterday morning, but declined to reveal any of the contents.
The eight prisoners include German citizens George Taubmann, 45; Katrin Jelinek, 29; Margrit Stebner, 43; and Silke Durrkopf, 36; Australians Peter Bunch, 57, and Diana Thomas, 50; and Americans Heather Mercer, 24, and Dayna Curry, 29. All are single except Taubmann, who is married with two teenage sons.
Copyright Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.