WASHINGTON – Concerned about the fate of a Christian convert in Afghanistan on trial for his life, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday seeking a "favorable resolution" of the case.
"This is a very deeply concerning development in Afghanistan and we have raised it at the highest levels,” Rice said during a press conference with the Greek minister of foreign affairs. “We look forward, hopefully, to a resolution to this in the very near future."
Abdul Rahman, 41, a medical aid worker, converted from Islam to Christianity 16 years ago, a fact that came out publicly during a civil custody case between him and his wife in front of local authorities. The authorities charged him with rejecting Islam, a crime under the country's Shar'ia-based law. The penalty, if guilty, is death.
Rice said religious freedom is the heart of democracy, a principle she hopes Afghanistan would uphold in its constitution in considering Rahman's case.
“We have raised it in the strongest possible terms to make clear that it is our great hope and desire that Afghanistan will reaffirm what is already in its constitution, that the universal declaration on human rights will be respected, and that this will be resolved in a way that is consistent with those principles," Rice said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack reported that Rice underlined to Karzai the "fact that the United States stands forthrightly for principles of freedom of worship, freedom of expression, and that these are bedrock principles of democracy around the world, these are principles that are enshrined in the Afghan constitution and they're principles that are enshrined in the U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
"We're looking for a favorable resolution at the earliest possible time," McCormack added.
On Wednesday, President Bush said he was troubled by the possible decapitation of Rahman.
"I'm troubled when I hear, deeply troubled when I hear, the fact that a person who converted away from Islam may be held to account. That's not the universal application of the values that I talked about. I look forward to working with the government of that country to make sure that people are protected in their capacity to worship," Bush said.
At the White House on Thursday, spokesman Scott McClellan said he was aware of Rice's call, but had not gotten a readout yet of the content. He said the administration will continue to stay in close contact with the Afghan government "and work with them to make sure that people's religious freedoms are protected."
In deference to the country's sovereignty, Rice evidently did not demand specifically that the trial be halted and the defendant released.
"This is clearly an Afghan decision to take. They are a sovereign government. It's a sovereign country. But as I pointed out, we believe that it is important that as the issue is resolved, that those fundamental principles of freedom of religion, freedom of expression are affirmed in the resolution of this case," McCormack said.
Still, her direct appeal to a foreign leader in a proceeding in his country is an unusual move. Rice also spoke to outgoing Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah earlier this week. Abdullah is in Washington, D.C., where he spoke Thursday at American University.
In the question and answer session, Abdullah said that he didn't want this situation to happen, but Afghanistan's exercise of its judicial system is in line with the constitution and its development of a democratic nation.
"We're aware of the fact that there might be different interpretation. It was not in the executive branch, it has been in the judicial. What are the options for the president and for the government, I'm not going to comment on that. I'm sure there will be a solution," he said.
In Afghanistan, Supreme Court judge Ansarullah Mawlavizada told Reuters that "Afghanistan is an Islamic country and its judiciary will act independently and neutrally. ... No other policy will be accepted apart from Islamic orders and what our constitution says."
Amnesty International also weighed in on the trial, demanding Rahman's release.
"No individual should ever be persecuted — let alone executed — for his or her religious beliefs. The freedom to practice one's own faith without fear of retribution is one of humanity's most sacred rights. If Rahman has been imprisoned solely because he converted to Christianity, he must be immediately and unconditionally released," said Amnesty International Executive Director William F. Schulz.
Separately, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist urged Rice to "use every diplomatic means necessary" to ensure Rahman's immediate release.
"I am greatly concerned by Mr. Rahman's prosecution and the challenge his case presents to the future of Afghanistan. It is fair to say that the United States has not spent the last four plus years liberating, defending, rebuilding and assisting Afghanistan's democratic development only to see the Afghani people remain subject to laws reminiscent of the Taliban's reign," Frist said.
Rahman is believed to have lived in Germany for nine years after converting to Christianity while working for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan. He returned to Kabul in 2002.
It was not immediately clear when Rahman's trial will resume. He is not believed to have a lawyer.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.