From today’s press conference at the State Department:
QUESTION:… Did you have occasion to take up with
the Minister the prosecution of an Afghan citizen and possible death sentence
for converting to Christianity? And Mr. Minister, is that representative of the
type of government, the type of society that the United States has committed
itself to helping Afghanistan achieve, that somebody could be prosecuted and
possibly killed for his religious beliefs?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Barry, I’ll be happy to answer that question first and
then have the Minister say a few words. We did discuss the case of Mr. Abdul
Rahman. And I said on behalf of our government that we hope very much the
judicial case, which we understand is now underway, would be held in a
transparent way. And of course, as our government is a great supporter of
freedom of religion and as the Afghan constitution affords freedom of religion
to all Afghan citizens, we hope very much that those rights, the right of
freedom of religion will be upheld in Afghan court. And so I said that we would
follow the case closely through our ambassador and our Embassy in Kabul and we
would certainly continue our dialogue on this issue with the Afghan
FOREIGN MINISTER ABDULLAH: Thank you. Of course on this issue, I was informed
about it during my trip — the day before yesterday, and we discussed it here.
We know — I know that it is a very sensitive issue and we know the concerns of
the American people. In fact, in our embassy we received hundreds of messages
of such kind. As far as I understand the nature of the case has been that the
wife of the gentleman has registered a lawsuit against her husband. And then
the Government of Afghanistan has nothing to do in it. It’s a legal and
judicial case. But I hope that through our constitutional process there will be
a satisfactory result out of that process.
QUESTION: Follow up on that?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Sure.
QUESTION: What will be a satisfactory outcome for you —
FOREIGN MINISTER ABDULLAH: I’m not an expert on judicial cases, but I’m sure
that the guideline for our judicial system will be constitution of Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Could you respond to that and is this acceptable or unacceptable for
that man to be put to death for converting his religion?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, certainly from an American viewpoint, certainly
not. We believe in universal freedoms and freedom of religion is one of them.
But I should also note more particularly and concerning this case, that the
Afghan constitution, as we understand it, also provides for freedom of
religion. And so from an American viewpoint, while we understand the complexity
of a case like this and we certainly will respect the sovereignty of the Afghan
authorities and the Afghan system. From an American point of view, people
should be free to choose their own religion and people should not receive any
severe penalties, certainly not penalty of death or, in our case, we would even
say penalty of imprisonment for having made a personal choice as to what
religion that person wishes to follow.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that just to ask why the United States isn’t
calling for this man to be released? If it was any other country, if it was
China, I’m sure you would. Why in this case are you not prepared to just say
plainly that this is wrong and this person should be released?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think I gave you a fairly straightforward answer to
the last question in particular and I’m happy to do that again if that
satisfies your need. But you know, this is a case that is not under the
competence of the United States. It’s under the competence of the Afghan
authorities. And so we raised it with the Minister. We put our view forward
that our belief is in freedom of religion for all individuals. And if there is
to be a trial, we hope that it’s going to be transparent so all of you and we
can observe that trial. And we hope that the Afghan constitution is going to be
upheld. And in our view, if it’s upheld, then, of course, he’ll be found to be
innocent. If he has a right of freedom of religion, that ought to be respected.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up and I have a different subject. Is the U.S.
prepared to use any recourse or measures to ensure that this man is freed?
Certain members of Congress are calling for that.
And if I might, you’ve made some comments in the recent week that Iran is
helping to support al-Qaida or at least not cracking down on them within their
own country, allowing them to roam free and perhaps even supporting them. Could
you expand on that? Do you have evidence or intelligence to indicate that Iran
has stepped up its cooperation with al-Qaida?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, on your first question, I think that obviously
we’ve raised it with the Afghan Government. We ought to give the Afghan
Government now the right to consider what it intends to do in the prosecution
of this case. And the Minister has given you his answer. I’m sure he’ll be
happy to talk to you further about it. But it’s within the competence of the
Afghan authorities and we hope very much again that freedom of religion and the
constitutional rights of that individual will be upheld.