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Exam ordered for convert

Mental state eyed in Afghan's case

KABUL, Afghanistan -- An Afghan man facing a possible death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity may be mentally unfit to stand trial, a state prosecutor said yesterday amid growing international condemnation of the case.

Abdul Rahman, 41, has been charged with rejecting Islam, a crime under this country's Islamic laws. His trial started last week and he confessed to becoming a Christian 16 years ago. If convicted, he could be executed.

''We think he could be mad. He is not a normal person. He doesn't talk like a normal person," prosecutor Sarinwal Zamari said.

Moayuddin Baluch, a religious adviser to President Hamid Karzai, said Rahman would undergo a psychological examination.

''If he is mentally unfit, definitely Islam has no claim to punish him," he said. ''He must be forgiven. The case must be dropped."

A Western diplomat in Kabul and a human rights advocate -- both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter -- said the government was desperately searching for a way to drop the case.

President Bush said yesterday he was ''deeply troubled" and expects the country to ''honor the universal principle of freedom."

NATO's top diplomat, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said he would call Karzai to insist the case be dropped.

A spokesman for Karzai, Khaleeq Ahmed, said the government would not interfere in the case but that the government ''will make sure human rights are observed."

The case is believed to be the first of its kind in Afghanistan and highlights a struggle between religious conservatives and reformists over what shape Islam should take four years after the ouster of the fundamentalist Taliban regime.

Afghanistan's Constitution is based on Sharia law, which is interpreted by many Muslims to require that any Muslim who rejects Islam be sentenced to death. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has called for Rahman to be punished, arguing he clearly violated Islamic law.

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