Protests As Christian Awaits Freedom

Kabul, Afghanistan - A court on Sunday dismissed the case against an Afghan man facing possible execution for converting from Islam to Christianity, officials said, paving the way for his release.

The move eased pressure from the West – including from both the White House and the Vatican - but raised the dilemma of how to protect Abdul Rahman after his release, as Islamic clerics have called for him to be killed.

About 700 people chanting "Death to Bush" and other anti-Western slogans protested Monday against the decision in the central city of Mazar-e-Sharif, said police commander Nasruddin Hamdrad. Security forces surrounded the demonstrators but did not intervene.

A Supreme Court spokesman, Abdul Wakil Omeri, said the case had been dismissed because of "problems with the prosecutors' evidence." He said several of Rahman's relatives testified he is mentally unstable and prosecutors have to "decide if he is mentally fit to stand trial."

CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar quotes one investigator as saying the testimony included a statement from Rahman's daughter, saying that he has mental problems.

Rahman is expected to be taken to a mental hospital.

The assertion that Rahman has mental problems, reports MacVicar, appears to be the basis of a face-saving deal in which he may be declared incompetent and unfit to answer for his actions, released and most likely, flown out of the country.

An Afghan official closely involved with the case told The Associated Press that the court ruled there was insufficient evidence and returned the case to prosecutors for further investigation. But he said Rahman would be released in the meantime.

"The court dismissed today the case against Abdul Rahman for a lack of information and a lot of legal gaps in the case," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly comment on the case.

One official said freedom might come as soon as Monday for Rahman, who became a Christian in the 1990s while working for an aid group in neighboring Pakistan.

Muslim extremists have demanded death for Rahman as an apostate for rejecting Islam. Some clerics previously vowed to incite Afghans to kill Rahman if he was let go.

Rahman was moved to Kabul's notorious high-security Policharki prison Friday after inmates at a jail in central Kabul threatened him, said Policharki's warden, Gen. Shahmir Amirpur.

The case set off an outcry in the United States and other nations that helped oust the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001 and provide aid and military support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. President Bush and others insisted Afghanistan protect personal beliefs.

Amirpur said Rahman had been asking guards for a Bible but they had none to give him. "He looks very calm. But he keeps saying he is hearing voices," Amirpur said.

Rahman has been held in solitary confinement in a tiny concrete cell next to a senior prison guard's office and authorities have barred journalists from seeing him.

A senior guard said inmates and many guards have not been told of Rahman's identity because of fears they might attack him.

But Amirpur vouched for the prisoner's safety. "We are watching him constantly. This is a very sensitive case so he needs high security."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said she had not received official confirmation from Afghan authorities, told Fox News the announcement is "a very good step forward."

She said on CNN's "Late Edition" that the U.S. government had stressed to Karzai that religious freedom is a vital element of democracy.

"We're going to stand firm for the principle that religious freedom and freedom of religious conscience need to be upheld, and we are hoping for a favorable resolution in this case," Rice said.

The uproar left Karzai in an awkward position. While trying to address concerns of foreign supporters, he also has sought not to alienate religious conservatives who wield considerable influence in Afghanistan.

The court's decision is sure to anger clerics who have strongly demanded that authorities enforce a provision in the country's Islamic-based laws calling for the execution of Muslims who abandon the faith.

"There will be big protests across Afghanistan," said Faiez Mohammed, a Sunni Muslim leader in the northern city of Kunduz. "This has shamed Afghanistan in the eyes of other Muslim countries."

A Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said it wasn't clear if the 41-year-old Rahman would be able to stay in Afghanistan or have to move abroad.

A prison official told AP that Rahman had been moved to a new prison Friday because of threats from inmates at his first jail.

Rahman was being prosecuted for converting 16 years ago while working as a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan. He was arrested last month after police discovered him with a Bible.

In an interview published Sunday by an Italian newspaper, Rahman said his family, including his former wife and two teenage daughters, reported him to authorities.

He stressed that he was fully aware of his choice to convert.

"If I must die, I will die," Rahman told the Rome daily La Repubblica, which did not interview him directly but channeled questions through a human rights worker who visited him in prison.

Rahman said he chose to become a Christian "in small steps" after leaving Afghanistan around 1990. He moved to Peshawar, Pakistan, then Germany and tried to get a visa in Belgium.

"In Peshawar, I worked for a humanitarian organization. They were Catholics," Rahman said. "I started talking to them about religion, I read the Bible, it opened my heart and my mind."

After saying he was ready to die, he told La Republica: "Somebody, a long time ago, did it for all of us," in a clear reference to Jesus Christ.