Afghan court wants Christian convert's mental state tested

Rahman had faced the death penalty after abandoning Islam


KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Afghan man who had faced the death penalty for abandoning Islam for Christianity will be released for mental evaluation soon, possibly today, potentially defusing a case that sparked international outrage and caused many to question which way the country was heading.

A Kabul court tossed out the case yesterday, sending it back to the prosecutor's office for more investigation, Judge Ansarullah Mawlawizada said.

Doctors will evaluate whether Abdul Rahman is mentally ill. The court also wants to know whether Rahman, 42, holds a passport for another country.

While Rahman could be granted asylum in a Western country, officials fear that would open the door to other Afghans' converting because it would represent one way out of the country. If Rahman has another passport, that would skirt the asylum issue.

Rahman has spent more than a month in jail since showing up at a police station and announcing he had converted to Christianity.

"He will probably be sent to the hospital tomorrow," Mohammed Eshak Aloko, Afghanistan's deputy attorney general, said yesterday evening. "He is not considered a prisoner anymore. He is a sick person."

Afghan authorities hope to avoid a political dispute by declaring Rahman mentally ill.

Since Rahman's first hearing March 16, the case has drawn widespread condemnation of Afghanistan, where an international coalition still props up the fledgling central government that was set up after the Taliban were driven out in late 2001.

Rahman reportedly converted to Christianity while working for a Christian aid group in Pakistan 16 years ago. He spent several years abroad, mostly in Europe, before returning to Afghanistan three years ago.

Several countries have hinted they would pull their troops from Afghanistan if Rahman were killed. President Bush, other world leaders, Christian groups and the pope have called on Afghanistan's government to release him.

But many Afghans have said Rahman should be killed. The fundamentalist Taliban may be gone, but much of the country remains conservative. Although the constitution protects human rights and freedom of religion, it also says Islamic law is the law of the land.

Many conservative clerics believe the Koran and Islamic law require the death penalty for any Muslim who rejects Islam and does not repent.

The case has caused a crisis for President Hamid Karzai, who has not commented publicly on the issue but reportedly has been working behind the scenes to free Rahman.

For his evaluation, Rahman might be sent to a mental hospital in Kabul, although treatment for mental disorders is far from ideal in Afghanistan. He may be sent to a hospital run by international troops. Or he could be sent to a mental hospital outside Afghanistan -- if he can afford it, said Sarinwal Zamari Ameri, attorney general of Kabul province.

"We will refer him to authorized doctors," Ameri said. "They will find out if he is normal or not."

Mawlawizada said three judges had spent "day and night" evaluating the case. He said judges were persuaded by evidence, including that Rahman's daughter and cousin said he was mentally ill and that in his first court appearance, Rahman said he was hearing voices from above.

"The judges in this case studied it very carefully," Mawlawizada said. "We felt no kind of pressure from the outside in this case."

In reality, the pressure was severe on the country, from the world and Afghans.

The unfolding solution could spare the country from the kind of protests and riots that racked Afghanistan twice in the past year -- over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and over a Newsweek article, later retracted, saying a Koran was stuffed down a toilet at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Late yesterday, a cleric who had said Rahman deserved to die if he did not repent praised the court system for being careful.

"Maybe this man is mentally ill," Maulavi Enayatullah Baligh said. "For this reason, I think it's good they are investigating further."

Once doctors decide whether Rahman is mentally fit to stand trial, prosecutors will decide whether to refile charges against him. If he is sick, he will be treated, officials said. After he is treated, prosecutors will ask Rahman again whether he is Christian.

"If he has the same answer, we'll see what happens," said Aloko, the deputy attorney general.

Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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