Red Cross Makes First Contact with Foreigners Detained in Afghanistan
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Sunday visited eight foreign aid workers detained for allegedly preaching Christianity in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, ICRC officials said.
The visit was the first contact the two Americans, two Australians and four Germans have had with the outside world since being detained three weeks ago under the Taliban militia's strict form of Islamic law.
ICRC chief in Afghanistan Robert Monin said five medical staff visited the prisoners at a detention center for juveniles in Kabul.
He said the two men were being held in one room and the six women in another, but he refused to discuss their state of health.
"They were happy to see us," he said after the private meeting which lasted several hours and was not supervised by Taliban guards.
"We had the facilities to carry out our work which was positive."
He said the condition of the prisoners was confidential under an agreement between the Taliban and the ICRC, which normally treats people wounded in the civil war here.
Taliban officials have repeatedly given assurances that the foreigners are in good health.
The men, Australian Peter Bunch and German George Taubmann, were initially held in a religious police jail in another part of the Afghan capital following their arrest between August 3 and 5.
Sixteen Afghans, colleagues of the expatriates at German-based relief group Shelter Now, are also in custody.
Afghans found guilty of renouncing Islam or inviting Muslims to convert to another religion face the death penalty under Taliban law, but the punishment for foreigners is likely to be less.
Permission for Sunday's visit was formally granted on Saturday when Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel contacted an ICRC team in the southern city of Kandahar, the Islamic militia's headquarters.
Embassy sources in neighboring Pakistan said relatives and diplomats were expected to visit the prisoners on Monday or Tuesday after the Taliban promised to give them visas.
The militia's official Bakhtar news agency on Saturday reported that relatives and diplomats would be given access as the first phase of investigations had been completed.
"We are hopeful. We believe that this is a good sign that they have agreed to issue visas. But based on past experience, we just have to wait and see," a foreign ministry spokesman in Australia said Sunday.
The Australian, German and US diplomats, who left Kabul empty-handed last Tuesday after spending a week in fruitless talks with the Taliban, have urged the militia to allow Red Cross visits.
But they have also insisted that the ICRC is no substitute for consular access and have criticized the Taliban for ignoring international convention regarding diplomatic contact with detained foreigners.
The mother of one of the detained American women and the father of another visited the Taliban embassy in Pakistan on Wednesday and sought clearance to travel to the hardline Islamic state.
Officials have not explained the charges against the foreigners nor the punishment they are likely to face, but have refused to rule out the death penalty.
Shelter Now's offices have been closed along with its food and housing projects, while other non-governmental organizations and the United Nations have been warned they are under close scrutiny.
The militia has said police are trying to determine whether the Shelter Now staff were acting alone or whether they were part of a larger conspiracy to undermine Islam and the Taliban's Islamic Emirate -- KABUL (AFP)
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)