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U.N. urges fair trial of aid workers

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The United Nations has called for a fair trial of eight overseas aid workers, accused by Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

The trial began in Kabul earlier Tuesday, though Noor Mohammed Saqib, the chief justice of Afghanistan's Supreme Court, said it is in a preliminary stage and none of the detainees had been brought to court yet.

Speaking on Tuesday from the sidelines a world racism conference in South Africa, U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson told CNN she hoped the trial of the aid workers will be fair and dealt with quickly.

“If they must be brought to trial (we hope) that it happens very quickly and in a fair and open process,” she said.

Robinson believes aid work in Afghanistan is crucial for humanitarian reasons.

CNN’s Nic Robertson reports that it remains unclear how long the legal process will take.(September 5)

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“It’s very very important that these aid workers are treated appropriately and quickly allowed to return to their families and work with their colleagues and that we can continue to ensure there is proper aid and support for the beleaguered and terribly suffering people of Afghanistan,” she said.

The eight aid workers charged with proselytizing -- four Germans, two Australians and two Americans -- are members of the Shelter Now International assistance group.

Saqib emphasized that he could not put a time frame on the trial, but added the court would work "continuously."

Before the trial began, officials of Afghanistan's Supreme Court met to decide details of how to conduct the trial.

The act of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity is considered illegal under the strict Islamic law enforced by the ruling Taliban.

Although the aid workers have maintained their innocence, the Taliban says hundreds of pieces of evidence have been collected since they were arrested a month ago.

Probe completed

Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry said Monday it had completed its investigation of the aid workers.

Saqib said if the accused could not defend themselves, arrangements could be made for legal representation.

The act of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity is considered illegal under the strict Islamic law enforced by the ruling Taliban.

Sixteen Afghan aid workers have also been arrested and are charged with the same crime.

The Afghan Foreign Ministry has not indicated when the Afghanis might face trial. Their cases are being dealt with separately from their Western counterparts.

Death penalty

A decree issued by the Taliban's supreme leader early this year set the death penalty for Afghan Muslims converting to another religion. But the punishment for foreigners found preaching Christianity is unclear.

On Monday, Taliban sources said the detainees' case will be heard by the Morafia High Court in a trial that could last a couple of days.

If the Western aid workers lose their case, they can appeal to the Stara Muhkama Supreme Court and can appeal again to the Taliban supreme commander should they lose their appeal before the Supreme Court.

Islamabad-based diplomats from Germany, Australia and the United States, together with the father of one American detainee and mother of the other, have been in Kabul for more than a week.

They have made several visits to the detainees, who have also received assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In recent days, the Taliban have also evicted the foreign staff of two other Christian humanitarian groups -- International Assistance Mission and Serve -- saying they were connected with SNI.

• Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
• U.S. Department of State
• Islamic Republic of Pakistan

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