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Taliban await workers’ word on counsel

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's ruling Taliban said Monday Western diplomats could visit eight foreign aid workers to discuss their trial on promoting Christianity once the eight decide if they want legal representation.

"We yesterday gave them (the eight) translated inquiry forms. We expect them to deliver it to us today," Taliban Chief Justice Noor Muhammad Saqib said.

However, Saqib said late in the day the workers had not returned the forms specifying if they wanted lawyers. It appeared the prisoners first wanted to consult among themselves and possibly with diplomats from Germany, Australia and the United States trying to see them.

Saqib said he had been too busy for a meeting requested by the Islamabad-based diplomats, who wanted to see the four Germans, two Australians and two Americans held for more than a month.

"The diplomats can visit the detainees to the extent of legal necessity and we will provide that opportunity to them, but first the detainees need to make a decision whether they want to defend themselves or want to hire legal help for the case," Saqib said.

The detainees, arrested more than five weeks ago along with 16 Afghan colleagues on charges that could carry the death penalty in Islamic Afghanistan, all work for the German-based Christian relief agency Shelter Now International (SNI).

They made their first court appearance Saturday and said they had not been proselytizing. It was the first time any of them had been seen in public since their arrest.

Australian diplomat Alistair Adams said the two men and six women detainees were in separate quarters in a detention center and that it was necessary for them to consult about legal strategy.

"We are waiting to meet the detainees . . . and also requested the authorities to allow the detainees to meet in the detention center," Adams said. Saqid told Reuters that judges Monday had discussed a range of cases, including that against the aid workers.

"Under the name of humanitarian workers, many institutes work for the promulgation of their ideology and for harming the morale of people, or work for the interests of their countries and spy for them," Saqid said.

Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil was quoted in the movement's Shariat Daily Sunday as saying it might consider swapping the aid workers for an Islamic militant jailed in the United States, but only after completion of the trial.

Muttawakil told a news conference in Kabul last week there had been no discussion or contacts about such a trade.

In court Saturday, the detainees were given forms written in Dari (Afghan Persian) asking them to specify what kind of legal assistance they wanted. They asked for a translated version of the form, which Saqib said was delivered Sunday.

Diplomatic sources said hiring lawyers was a complex issue and they were looking for possible candidates in Peshawar, capital of neighboring Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.

Another time-consuming task in the trial, which is in its sixth day, would be translation of a large number of documents relating to the investigation, they added.

There was no indication how long the trial could last. The diplomats, whose visas allow them to stay in Kabul until Sept. 17, said the legal process remained clouded in uncertainty.

The detainees, who in court appeared healthy, have been identified as Germans Georg Taubmann, Katrin Jelinek, Margrit Stebner and Silke Durrkopf, Australians Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas and Americans Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer.