The chief justice of the Afghan Supreme Court told eight foreign aid workers accused of preaching Christianity Sunday that the threat of American military action would not influence his verdict in their trial.
Proceedings in the trial got back under way in the Afghan capital of Kabul after a hiatus of three weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia is sheltering Saudi exile Usama bin Laden, thought to be the mastermind behind the attacks.
Seven of the eight employees of the German-based Christian group Shelter Now International appeared in closed court before Supreme Court Chief Justice Noor Mohammed Saqib, according to a Taliban soldier stationed inside.
The four Germans, two Americans and two Australians are being tried on charges that they attempted to convert a Muslim family to Christianity. They deny the accusation.
Under current Taliban law, foreigners caught proselytizing are to be jailed and expelled. Afghans found guilty of the same offense can be sentenced to death.
The soldier said one of the two American women, thought to be Heather Mercer, 24, was not brought to court because she was ill. It wasn't clear what the illness was, but it was not believed to be serious because the soldier, who refused to give his name, said she may be brought to court later in the day if Saqib demanded her presence.
The defendants were represented by two Pakistani lawyers, Atif Ali Khan and Bismillah Khan, when they appeared before the trial judge.
Mercer and the other American woman, Dayna Curry, 29, were arrested on Aug. 3 in the beleaguered Afghan capital, Kabul. Two days later, the Taliban's religious police raided the offices of Shelter Now International and arrested the other six foreign employees — Germans George Taubmann, Margrit Stebnar, Kati Jelinek and Silke Dürrkopf, and Australians Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas — as well as 16 Afghan staff.
Fears for the safety of the defendants mounted after the United States threatened military strikes against Afghanistan for refusing to hand over bin Laden, the prime suspect in the destruction of the World Trade Center and damage to the Pentagon.
But in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, Heather Mercer's father, John Mercer, said he believed that if the United States attacked, the Taliban "would do their utmost to keep them safe."
The Afghan workers of Shelter Now International are to be tried separately, although the Taliban have refused to say when.
The Associated Press contributed to this report