France's defense minister said Wednesday that while Paris opposes capital punishment, it will respect an Afghan military court's decision to sentence an Afghan soldier to death for killing four French troops.
The Afghan Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday that Abdul Sabor had been sentenced to hang for killing the French soldiers in January in eastern Afghanistan.
"Afghan justice is Afghan justice," Le Drian said while visiting a French-run hospital at an air field in Kabul. "The French made it known at the trial's start that French opinion was very shaken about what happened on January 20. ... We reminded people that France is against the death penalty, but Afghan justice is not our own. We will not interfere in Afghan judicial procedure. Afghanistan is an independent state."
France banned capital punishment in 1981.
Sabor can appeal the sentence to higher courts.
In a statement released Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid called Sabor "a famous hero" for killing the foreign troops.
The four French soldiers were killed on Jan. 20 in Tagab district of Kapisa province. Just a month earlier, on Dec. 29, 2011, another Afghan soldier killed two members of the French Foreign Legion.
Human Rights Watch on Wednesday called on the Afghan government to commute the soldier's death sentence.
"The death penalty is an act of cruelty that should not be imposed even in a heinous crime like this," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "President Hamid Karzai should commute the death sentence in this and all other cases in Afghanistan."
The death of the French troops was one of the latest cases of the so-called "green-on-blue" attacks in which Afghan soldiers, or insurgents disguised in their uniforms, turn their weapons on coalition forces.
Such attacks have fueled distrust between U.S. and other foreign troops and their Afghan partners. Last year there were a total of 21 "green-on-blue" attacks that killed 35 coalition service members, according to NATO figures. That compares with 11 fatal attacks and 20 deaths the previous year. In 2007 and 2008 there were a combined total of four attacks and four deaths.
The French casualties prompted France to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan earlier than planned. The decision to put France on a fast-track exit timetable sparked concern among some members of the U.S.-led military coalition, which is not ending its combat mission until the end of 2014.
France will pull 2,000 French combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and leave around 1,400 soldiers behind to help with training and logistics.
Le Drian said he had confidence in the Afghan forces that will be charged with security in areas where the French were deployed.
"There's been an evolution that's encouraging and favorable in our relationship with the Afghan forces," he said. "The Afghan army is progressively taking on its duties. It's very encouraging. Obviously, the Afghan forces are not there for tourism. They're an army, so they are also confronted by insurgents, but I have confidence in the handover."
Besides the troops, France is pulling out about 900 armored vehicles and 1,400 containers from Afghanistan, according to French officials in Kabul.
Associated Press Writer Deb Riechmann in Kabul and Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this report.