Two weeks ago reports were circulating that Sayed Musa, the 46-year-old Afghan jailed since last May for converting to Christianity, would be executed by hanging. But this week Musa was freed by Afghan authorities and has been allowed to leave the country.
Sources in Kabul, along with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., confirmed his release Thursday. His whereabouts were not disclosed pending Musa's reunion with his wife and six children. Due to threats from Muslim neighbors and the hardship of Musa's imprisonment, the family in recent months was forced to leave Afghanistan.
Musa's release ends a frightening ordeal for the former International Committee for the Red Cross therapist. An amputee, his case gained attention last fall after he sent written dispatches from prison saying that he was enduring daily beatings and sexual abuse from Muslim prisoners. (See "Deeds done in darkness," Nov. 20, 2010.)
Western Christians living in Kabul, where Musa (whose name is often transliterated as Said Mosa or Mossa) was held on charges of apostasy after he appeared in a video showing a baptism service involving Afghans, visited Musa in prison and lobbied officials for his release. Failing that, they sought legal representation-only to find that no Muslim lawyer in Kabul would take his case. The attorney general's office supervising the case would not accept outside counsel. His advocates were successful, along with officials from the U.S. Embassy, in having him moved to a safer prison last October, where he was no longer physically mistreated. But the Karzai government refused to release him, even as it continued to postpone scheduled dates for his court trial.
Under Islamic law, apostasy is punishable by death. But under Afghan's constitution, freedom of religion is also upheld. In addition, Afghanistan under President Hamid Karzai is a signatory to the UN Declaration on Human Rights, which stipulates the right to choose one's own religion.
According to a handwritten note Musa sent from prison in mid-February, high-level diplomats from the U.S. and Italian embassies visited him and offered asylum. But an Afghan official asked him at the time-as he had been many times previously-to renounce his Christian faith and declare himself again a Muslim. Musa refused. "I never, never, never deny my Lord's name," he wrote, and authorities sent him back to jail.
Western pressure to release Musa continued to build: NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke out about the case, warning Kabul that "a sentence to death or any punishment for converting from one religion to the another is in strong contradiction with everything NATO stands for."
An Afghan Christian living in Kabul who knows Musa told me today, "We are all happy and thankful. On one hand it is encouraging for us that God has answered our prayers; on the other hand I personally don't know how much things have improved . . . the government must be more careful in future cases as they may not want to buy problems and international pressure for themselves."
Musa's release is a mixed victory for religious freedom advocates who have campaigned on his behalf for many months. Afghan officials appear to have relented on Musa's behalf but not to have changed a policy of crackdown on Christian believers. Another Afghan convert, Shoib Assadullah, remains in jail after his arrest on similar charges last October. In a letter smuggled out of his jail cell in Mazar-e-Sharif, he wrote last week, "I am undergoing severe psychological pressure. Several times I have been attacked physically and threatened to death by fellow prisoners, especially Taliban and anti-government prisoners who are in jail."
Six more converts face prison and death sentences in Afghanistan after they were denied asylum in India. The Barnabas Fund announced today that they are likely to be deported back to Afghanistan.