Taliban May Execute Women Aid Workers


By Ahmed Rashid

Daily Telegraph
August 7, 2001

Two women aid workers arrested in Afghanistan have confessed to converting Muslims to Christianity, the Taliban said yesterday, opening the way to possible death sentences. The pair, an American and an Australian, were among eight foreign and 16 Afghan charity staff arrested by the Taliban's religious police. The arrests mark an ominous escalation in the Taliban's battle with the outside world.

Already subject to a series of United Nations sanctions, the fundamentalist administration has repeatedly ignored world anger, most recently rejecting appeals to halt the destruction of "idolatrous" Buddhist statues. It has also targeted Hindus, forcing them to wear yellow markers on their clothes so that they can be identified. The western Christian aid workers, part of Shelter Now International, were said to be Americans Dana Curry and Nicole Barnardhollon; Germans George Taubmann, Margrit Stebnar, Kati Jelinek and Silke Duerrkopf; and Australians Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas.

Mullah Mohammed Salim Haqqani, the deputy minister of the religious police, said two of the western women - an American and an Australian - and some of the arrested Afghans had confessed. He said: "They have asked the Emirate and Muslims to pardon them and will be treated in the light of sharia [Islamic law]. They have no message for their families or their government and are [being] looked after well."

Authorities took 59 Afghan children into custody, claiming they had been influenced by Christianity. They will be re-educated in Islam. Mullah Haqqani said: "We have put [them] in a correction house to remove from their hearts and minds the Christian teachings, and once that is done they will be set free."

The Taliban said it had been following the group for a long time and finally caught members of the group "red-handed" with Christian literature, a Bible and Christian films on computer disk which they were playing to an Afghan family in order to convert them. "In line with the decrees of Mullah Mohammed Omar [the Taliban leader] and sharia we will declare the penalties against these people," said Mullah Haqqani. Last year the Taliban decreed that anyone trying to convert Afghans to another religion, and Afghans who had renounced Islam, would be executed.

The Taliban have sealed the offices of SNI after taking away computers, books and papers. The six western women are being held in the same detention centre as the Afghan children, and the two men at the headquarters of the religious police. Mullah Haqqani said they were all being interrogated. "They are in good condition, we have given them three meals and they are living in a nice room." There was a flurry of activity at the US, German and Australian embassies in Islamabad yesterday as diplomats tried to ascertain what had happened. "We don't have diplomatic relations with the Taliban but we do have a good working contact with them in Pakistan," said a US embassy spokesman. "Today we made a representation to them calling for a speedy release of all those concerned."

UN officials expressed grave concern, saying it appeared to be part of a campaign by the Taliban to restrict and harass international aid workers at a time when Afghanistan faces a humanitarian disaster.

The Taliban hard line follows the imposition of an arms embargo against them in January by the UN Security Council, which was aimed at stopping military aid from Pakistan. The Taliban are still fighting an alliance led by Ahmad Shah Masud in the north-east of the country.

The Taliban force of some 25,000 men include some 8,000 non-Afghans, among them Arabs under the command of the Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden, thousands of Pakistani extremists, Central Asians, Chinese and Filipinos. In the past few months the Taliban have issued numerous decrees imposing new restrictions. But there is an intense power struggle developing between more moderate ministers and officials in Kabul and the religious police and army.

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