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Karzai (left) and Petraeus (AP/Photo by Shah Marai)

High-level interest?

Religion | Afghan Christian convert's case may be the subject of a U.S. meeting

The case of Afghan Sayed Musa, who has been in a Kabul jail since May 31 allegedly for converting from Islam to Christianity, will be the subject of a meeting between Gen. David Petraeus and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, according to legal counsel who arrived in Kabul this week to assist the 45-year-old Musa.

Court proceedings in the case have been postponed three times, most recently on Sunday. But on Saturday Musa (whose name is often transliterated as Mosa or Mossa) did make an appearance in the courtroom, just across the Kabul River from the prison where he is currently been held. Officials did not notify those involved in his legal representation of that proceeding. Musa came into the court, which more closely resembles a lounge area with battered sofas and old carpet, shackled to two other prisoners. He appeared nervous, according to eyewitnesses I spoke to.

Conflicting reports from Afghan officials handling the case have continued to surface, particularly since a group of Musa's supporters were able to secure legal counsel last week through Advocates International, a faith-based association with 25.000 attorneys in 130 countries.

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According to those close to the case, the judge in the case notified a legal representative on Sunday that Musa's file had been "rejected" or suspended and would be sent to the attorney general's office for further action. But the same day the prosecutor in charge of western Kabul, Din Mohammad Quraishi, told Agence France Presse that Musa and another prisoner, Ahmad Shah, are being detained and charged with apostasy: "They are accused of conversion to another religion, which is considered a crime under Islamic law. If proved, they face the death penalty or life imprisonment."

According to the report, Quraishi said Musa had "confessed" to his conversion and there was "proof" against Shah. But Musa has accused Shah of being one of his "tormenters" in jail and a spy. Meanwhile, Shah claims to be Muslim and wants to defend himself at trial, Quraishi said.

Amidst those reports, advocates for Musa continue to be denied requests to see the prisoner and to see his file. Quraishi on Tuesday told advocates for Musa he cannot provide documents in the case unless the court directs him to do so and would not discuss the charges with them. An Afghan attorney in the case is being sought through Afghanistan's Independent Bar Association but hasn't yet been named.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman said he could not confirm that the Musa case is on the agenda for the Petraeus-Karzai meeting and directed inquiries to the U.S. embassy in Kabul, which did not return email inquiries in the case. Those close to the case say the suspension in proceedings may reflect high-level interest in the case that has been growing since Musa wrote a letter in October describing his ordeal, which has included beatings and sexual assaults by Muslim prisoners (see "Deeds done in darkness," WORLD, Nov. 20 issue). Pressured by Western embassies in Kabul, authorities moved him to a prison within the provincial governor's compound in downtown Kabul, a facility normally reserved for high-risk Taliban detainees. From there Musa released another letter, dated Nov. 23 and made available to WORLD this week. In it he wrote, "Because the Holy Spirit is always with me, my place is not bad until now. I request of you please tell the other believers they must pray and not give up."

But greater exposure for Musa's case doesn't mean it will be properly adjudicated. Under Article 36 of the 2004 Interim Criminal Code of Afghanistan the accused has the right to be released if an indictment has not been presented within 15 days of arrest. If followed, Musa should have been charged or released in June.

Musa is not the only Christian detained without formal charges. Shoib Assadullah was reportedly arrested on Oct. 21 in Mazar-e-Sharif, according to International Christian Concern (ICC), after he had given a New Testament Bible to a man who later reported him to local authorities. He is currently in a holding jail in northern Afghanistan. According to a Westerner following that case who spoke to ICC, Shoib's case is also going through the courts.

Both cases are tests for the Karzai government and come at a sensitive time in relations between the two countries. The meeting between the Afghan president and the U.S. four-star general comes at a taut moment: The two met a week ago after Karzai criticized NATO forces operating in the country but before cables released as part of the latest WikiLeaks data dump revealed raw U.S. frustration with corruption within Karzai's ranks.

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