A hearing in the case of Sayed Musa, the jailed Afghan convert to Christianity, had already been postponed twice when he entered the courtroom in downtown Kabul on Nov. 27. "I became very, very happy," he wrote later that day, when a man and woman entered the room also, and one introduced himself as "your defense attorney."
Six months into his incarceration, the 45-year-old apparently had some legal counsel. But progress in Musa's case-which has come to symbolize how the Karzai government handles conflicts over religious freedom-remained halting.
Both he and the defense attorney were denied access to his file that day-again-and the provincial judge refused to lay out formal charges, saying instead that the file contained "a mistake" and he was "rejecting" it and forwarding it to Afghanistan's attorney general.
That didn't prevent the prosecutor in charge of western Kabul, Din Mohammad Quraishi, from telling Agence France Presse why Musa (whose name is often transliterated as Mosa or Mossa) and another prisoner, Ahmad Shah, are in jail: "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," said Quraishi.
Musa has "confessed" to his conversion, Quraishi said, while Shah claims to be a Muslim and wants to defend himself against the charges at a trial. Musa has accused Shah of being one of his "tormenters" in jail and a spy. Musa entered the courtroom on Nov. 27 shackled to Shah and, according to eyewitnesses, appeared notably more nervous.
Musa is not the only Christian detained without formal charges. Shoib Assadullah was arrested on Oct. 21 in Mazar-e-Sharif, according to International Christian Concern, 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.
A group of Musa's supporters was able to secure legal counsel through Advocates International-a faith-based association with 25,000 attorneys in 130 countries. But the judge denied the attorney access to the evidence against Musa and informed him that Musa must be represented by an Afghan (the attorney, who has asked not to be named publicly for fear of his own safety, is not an Afghan).
At the same time, public interest has grown, particularly since Musa wrote a letter in October describing his prison ordeal, which has included beatings and sexual assaults by Muslim prisoners. Musa has since been moved to a high-security facility typically reserved for political prisoners. According to the attorney and other sources, Musa's case was to be a topic discussed in a meeting between President Hamid Karzai and Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, on Dec. 1. Sources contacted within the general's staff, the U.S. embassy, and the State Department could not confirm whether that discussion took place.
The attorney told me he is torn about the prospect of a deal to secure Musa's release: "We believe the charges should be withdrawn altogether," he said. "The right to choose who and what to believe is the most basic of rights, after the right to life."
The attorney said he remained eager to assist in the case: "How can I sit still when [nearby] a brother sits in prison despairing that he will receive a fair trial for doing something that in any society with God-values would not even be considered a crime?"
Under Afghanistan's Interim Criminal Code, Musa's case could be dismissed on procedural grounds. It requires that a plaintiff be notified of the charges against him within 15 days (or 30 days under some circumstances) of his arrest and have access to the evidence on file-conditions plainly not met. Musa was arrested on May 31 as he left his work with the International Committee for the Red Cross-part of a roundup of Christians accused of apostasy. Musa has worked for 15 years as a therapist with victims of landmines and other amputees.