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Wednesday, 5 September, 2001, 08:54 GMT 09:54 UK
Taleban 'may execute' aid workers
Foreign diplomats outside courthouse
Foreign diplomats were turned away from the court building
A senior Taleban official has warned that foreign aid workers on trial in Afghanistan on charges of preaching Christianity could be executed.

If they have broken the law and should be hanged then we will punish them like that

Taleban chief justice
Taleban chief justice Mawlawi Noor Mohammad Saqib told the Pakistan-based news agency Afghan Islamic Press that if the eight accused were found guilty, they would be punished according to Islamic law.

"We will punish them according to the laws they have broken," he said. "If they have broken the law and should be hanged, then we will punish them like that."

Mr Saqib said the accused, who were all working for the German-based Shelter Now organisation, would be allowed to have foreign, non-Muslim lawyers.

The trial began in Kabul on Tuesday behind closed doors.

Diplomats who sought a meeting with the chief justice to clarify the legal proceedings were turned away from the court building without explanation.

Mr Saqib said the diplomats would be contacted when it was deemed necessary, adding that the court had still not decided whether to allow independent observers into the trial.

'In the dark'

The diplomats continued to demand information about the trial.

John Mercer and Ellen Cassel, parents of two detained aid workers
The parents of two of the detainees
"We want to know what's going on," said Australian consul Alastar Adams.

"It's too bad that we have been kept completely in the dark about the trial."

Four of the aid workers are Germans, two American and two Australian. Sixteen Afghan nationals were also arrested in connection with the allegations.

The foreigners face a number of charges, but will chiefly be tried on the accusation that they preached a banned religion.

Mr Saqib has not said when the aid workers will be called to court.

Bibles and other Christian materials allegedly seized from the homes and offices of the detainees, who all worked for the German-based Shelter Now International, are being scrutinised.

No precedent

The Taleban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is expected to have the last word on the penalty.

Materials seized from Shelter Now International
The Taleban say they have evidence against the aid workers
The BBC's Kate Clark says no one has previously been tried for preaching Christianity as far as Afghans can recall, and this is the first time the Taleban have put any non-Muslim foreigners on trial for any charges.

The Afghan defendants are to be tried at a later date.

A ruling earlier this year said that Afghan Muslims converting to another religion would be sentenced to death.

But the Taleban deputy minister for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice has now said that any Afghan convicted of converting to Christianity would be given three days to renounce their faith.

He said they would be spared the death penalty if they repented but would still face other punishments for betraying their religion and traditions.

The BBC's Kate Clark in Islamabad
"Western diplomats still do not know what charges their citizens will be facing"
See also:

01 Sep 01 | South Asia
Foreign volunteers leave Kabul
27 Aug 01 | South Asia
Jailed Kabul aid workers 'well'
26 Aug 01 | South Asia
Taleban softens stance
25 Aug 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Modern missionaries
17 Aug 01 | South Asia
Taleban justice clouded in uncertainty
20 Dec 00 | South Asia
Analysis: Who are the Taleban?
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