Taliban officials have said converting Muslims is a crime punishable by death but any final decision on punishment is up to supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Taliban officials in Kabul said the trial would begin soon. But the Taliban ambassador in neighboring Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, said the hearing could begin on Tuesday or Wednesday.
"It will be an open trial where diplomats, relatives and journalists will be allowed to listen to the hearings," a Taliban Foreign Ministry official declared. Germany said consular officials would attend the trial and offer legal aid. "Should such a trial take place, consular officials will again be there to try to offer legal representation for those imprisoned and to observe the proceedings," said a German Foreign Ministry statement issued in Berlin.
"In the court they could again press for a release and expulsion of the prisoners from Afghanistan," it added.
It said letters received from the incarcerated Germans on Saturday had indicated, "Things are going well for them." Taliban officials say the trial of 16 Afghan SNI workers, who were arrested on similar charges with the eight foreign staff last month, would be held separately some time later. The Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) service said the eight were moved from their place of detention -- a reform school -- to an unknown place over the weekend. "They have been moved to a better and more comfortable place," it quoted Taliban deputy foreign minister Abdur Rehman Zahid as saying.
CHANCE TO RENOUNCE
A decree issued by Mullah Omar early this year set the death penalty for Afghan Muslims converting to another religion, but the punishment for foreigners found proselytizing is unclear.
Abdul Hai, Taliban's deputy minister for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, said that under Islamic laws, converts would be given three days to renounce Christianity and they could be spared the capital punishment if they repented. "But they will be punished otherwise for betraying their religion and tradition," he told reporters.
A U.N. official in Kabul on Sunday called for a fair trial for all 24 of the detained foreign and Afghan aid workers. The United Nations has also been pressing the hardliner Taliban movement for an early resolution to the case, which began when the Taliban arrested the SNI staff more than four weeks ago and sealed the agency's offices in the war-torn country. Three Pakistan-based Western diplomats -- an Australian, an American and a German -- are in Kabul along with two parents of the two detained American aid workers.
Last week, the diplomats met the detainees twice and reported they all looked well. The detainees told the diplomats the Taliban authorities had treated them well. The Taliban say they have strong evidence that SNI's foreign staff were involved in trying to convert Afghan Muslims to Christianity but had no proof any conversions were actually made. SNI says its staff is told not to proselytize.
The Taliban have also evicted all foreign staff of two Christian humanitarian groups -- International Assistance Mission (IAM) and Serve -- saying they were connected to SNI.
Zahid told AIP that all the foreign staff of the two groups had left Afghanistan by Monday, meeting an ultimatum set by the Taliban on Friday. The Taliban, recognized as a legitimate government by just three countries, rule around 95 percent of Afghanistan and want to establish a purist Islamic state. Their strict interpretation of Islam has often earned them international condemnation, especially for rights abuses and a decision to destroy the country's pre-Islamic heritage.