UN Special Envoy to Plead for Detained Aid Workers in Afghanistan
The United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan said Saturday he would plead for clemency for 24 arrested aid workers, including eight foreigners, during talks with top Taliban officials.
The UN secretary general's special representative, Francesc Vendrell, said he would urge the Taliban to show mercy to the detainees, entering their second week in Taliban captivity for allegedly preaching Christianity.
"I want to make it clear that my visit here was planned long ago, but obviously I will be raising this issue," he said after arriving at Kabul's battle-scarred airport on what he described as a routine visit.
"I just hope that they deal with it in accordance with the international principles of fair treatment and I hope they will give access to the diplomatic representatives of the foreigners."
Diplomats representing the two American, two Australian and four German detainees have expressed frustration that their repeated requests for consular access have not been approved by the Taliban embassy in Pakistan.
The three countries do not maintain embassies in Afghanistan because they do not recognize the fundamentalist Islamic militia, which seized Kabul in 1996 and imposed a puritanical brand of Sharia law.
Anyone found preaching Christianity, regarded as an "abolished religion" in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, faces the death penalty although for foreigners punishment may be limited to a few days in prison or expulsion.
"An exemplary punishment is essential to end such un-Islamic practice by any foreign group in Afghanistan," the country's chief justice, Mullah Noor Mohammad Saqib, told a crowd at a mosque here Friday.
Vendrell, who is likely to meet Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel in the next few days, said he would urge Taliban officials to provide legal advice to the 16 detained Afghans who were "in very serious danger."
"In terms of the foreigners I will very much hope ... they will be expelled as soon as possible," he said.
"I hope there may be clemency and justice."
None of the foreign prisoners -- two men and six women -- has had contact with the outside world since their arrest last weekend, although some of the women have been allowed to collect clothes from their homes.
The female detainees are being held under heavy Taliban guard at a center for juveniles in the middle of the war-ravaged Afghan capital, while the men are in a religious police detention center.
Taliban mouthpiece Radio Shariat late Friday reported that one of the detainees, George Taubmann, the German director of the Shelter Now aid group, had confessed to his crimes under interrogation and pleaded for clemency for himself and his co-workers.
Embassy sources said senior consular officials were ready to travel to Afghanistan, by road if necessary, as soon as the visas were issued.
Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef has said the diplomats have a "right" to visit their nationals but has been unable to explain why their visas have not been issued.
"I am waiting for a response (from the foreign ministry) but there is nothing. I cannot say when they will be issued," he told AFP Saturday.
The United States has warned the Taliban, which it accuses of supporting terrorism and drug trafficking, that it would be held responsible for the well-being of the detainees.
"I think you can say we are frustrated because it's now been a week since the Americans were arrested and although we have made diligent efforts to gain consular access we have not succeeded," an embassy spokesman said Friday.
The detainees were staff of German-based Shelter Now, which was running food and housing projects to help poor people in a country devastated by more than 20 years of war and the worst drought in memory.
The group's offices were sealed this week -- KABUL (AFP)
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