Pretty appalling. I'm glad that the U.S. government is pressuring the Afghan government to rescind this, and I hope that the behind-the-scenes pressure is more serious than the public pressure; according to the Chicago Tribune, "The Bush administration issued a subdued appeal Tuesday to Afghanistan to permit a Christian convert on trial for his life to practice his faith in the predominantly Muslim country. The State Department, however, did not urge the U.S. ally in the war on terrorism to terminate the trial. Officials said the Bush administration did not want to interfere with Afghanistan's sovereignty." It seems from my LEXIS search that the Voice of America News was the first to break the story, which I'm glad about; let's hope the drumbeat goes on, and influences the Afghan government.
Here, by the way, is an excerpt from the State Department press briefing on the subject; I can understand why the diplomats at State want to be circumspect about their statements, but I'm also pleased that the media is pressing them on it.
MR. MCCORMACK: ... Thank you for bringing it up because we did raise this particular case with Foreign Minister Abdullah. We are watching this case closely and we urge the Afghani Government to conduct any legal proceedings in a transparent and a fair manner. Certainly we underscored -- we have underscored many times and we underscored also to Foreign Minister Abdullah that we believe that tolerance and freedom of worship are important elements of any democracy. And certainly as Afghanistan continues down the pathway to democracy these are issues that they are going to have to deal with. These are not things that they have had to deal with in the past. Previously under the Taliban, anybody considered an apostate was subject to torture and death. Right now you have a legal proceeding that's underway in Afghanistan and we urge that that legal proceeding take place in a transparent matter and we're going to watch the case closely.
QUESTION: Well, I don't want to quibble but it sounds like you're asking for fair play and good procedure. Why don't you simply ask that it be cancelled? I mean, what possible justification is there for putting someone on trial for changing his religion?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, again, Barry, this is a question of the Afghan constitution and its laws. There are differing interpretations of it and I think that that's the issue with which they're trying to grapple with. That's the allusion that I made to -- of Afghanistan being a new democracy and coming to terms and dealing with these issues.
So it is, in the eyes of Afghanistan, the Afghan Government now, a legal issue that we are going to watch very closely.
QUESTION: I mean, it does seem a little lukewarm to just say you hope that they treat him fairly in this court case when it's questionable whether that is even a moral grounds to hold a proceeding. Is that something that the U.S. Government has pressed the Afghan Government to do is just to allow people to convert their religion?
MR. MCCORMACK: Like I said, in the sort of -- within the Afghan -- confines of the Afghan constitution, this becomes a legal question. We have underscored the importance of freedom of worship, tolerance and freedom to express oneself as a core element of democracy. Like I said, we raised this issue with Foreign Minister Abdullah and I think that he and the Afghan Government understand very clearly where we stand on this issue. But as I said, this is, at the moment, a legal issue for the Afghan Government and that we would urge the Afghan Government to proceed in a fair and transparent manner.
QUESTION: Do you feel that that's all it's appropriate for the U.S. Government to do is just to hope the court case goes --
MR. MCCORMACK: At this point, we have raised it with the Foreign Minister and we're going to continue to watch the case very closely.
QUESTION: But I guess my question is: Are you raising the fact that you want the court case to go transparently or raise the fact that there should even be a legal question?
MR. MCCORMACK: I think that the concerns that I have expressed in public are the ones that we have expressed to the Foreign Minister.
QUESTION: Isn't there something wrong with the constitution of Afghanistan if it's -- I mean, the Secretary of State goes around, you know, telling countries which have, you know, bad human rights records to respect the freedom to worship, and here's a country where America has gone in and tried to help, has been praised by the President, praised by the Secretary of State for its democratic progress, and here it is persecuting somebody because they've converted to another faith.
MR. MCCORMACK: Jonathan, as I said, this is right now -- it's a constitutional matter so it's a legal question. So what that tells you is that there are two sides to this. There are those that believe that this is absolutely this person's right within Afghanistan, Afghans who believe that. So right now this is -- I believe certainly this is the first case that I have heard of of this type. So it is a test of the Afghan constitution. It's a test of Afghanistan's democracy. And so as I said, we will watch the case very closely. We have raised it with the Foreign Minister.
QUESTION: Is there anything at stake if they choose to prosecute -- choose to actually take -- persecute, perhaps, this man for his faith?
MR. MCCORMACK: Let's deal with the situation as we have it right now. This is the -- it is at an initial stage and, like I said, we're going to watch it closely.
QUESTION: But by waiting until the results of the trial come out, you're not casting judgment on whether there should be one in the first place.
MR. MCCORMACK: Teri, I've provided the answer that I'm going to provide to you on it.
QUESTION: Let me try it a slightly different way, though the answer may be the same. Are you troubled in any way by the case?
MR. MCCORMACK: Charlie, again, I've answered the question
... At a news conference in Washington with Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah said officials of his government 'know that it is a very sensitive issue and we know the concerns of the American people.'"
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