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Holding fast

"Holding fast" Continued...

Issue: "Food stamps surge," Nov. 19, 2011

Arrested with Musa was Ahmed Shah Reza, whom Musa had met at Christian gatherings but soon discovered to be a spy working, he said, for Grand Ayatollah Mohseni, a hardline Shiite cleric who runs an Islamic school in Tehran. In jail Reza renounced Christianity and was released by order of the attorney general. Musa was accused of apostasy, and the attorney general's office announced he could be hanged pending a trial. But scheduled court appearances came and went, postponed as the government faced mounting embarrassment over the case.

Americans working in Afghanistan who knew Musa wrote to the U.S. embassy in Kabul to protest that he was illegally detained and denied due process. An Aug. 1 letter read: "If it is found that Mossa's life is in jeopardy because he exercised his right to choose his own faith, I entreat that the US Embassy do what it can to ensure his safety. ... The US government has been actively engaged in Afghanistan since 2001, spending billions of dollars, exerting millions of hours of manpower, and losing precious American lives in order to ensure that the Afghan people enjoy these basic human rights. If one cannot enjoy these rights, none can enjoy them."

Members of Congress and European diplomats also began to press their respective embassies to pressure the Karzai government for his release. Five members of the House international religious freedom caucus also wrote to Kabul ICRC head Stocker Reto. Yet throughout Musa's ordeal, and despite over 15 years working for the Red Cross, ICRC representatives never visited him or intervened on his behalf. Reto and ICRC officers in Geneva said the agency had to remain "neutral."

Kabul prisons have come under new scrutiny since the UN released a report in October on prison conditions, documenting beatings and torture under the watch of the National Security Directorate and other branches. Under the Leahy Amendment, the United States is blocked from funding facilities where such abuse takes place. But while the report focused on Taliban detainees, transfers from Guantanamo, and other "armed conflict" prisoners, it said nothing about those jailed over non-violent issues, like Musa-even though the ICRC assisted in the survey for the report.

The staunchest advocates Musa had outside the prison were a European couple, former neighbors in Kabul. They contacted officials, organized prayer meetings, and set up prison visits-sometimes successful, often not. They are not named in this story because they continue to work in Kabul.

But none of the mounting international pressure then made a difference. Colder weather set in and Musa began his sixth month in captivity in an unheated, overcrowded detention room. He didn't have a blanket or change of clothes until late September and slept on a mat on the floor. Meals of rice and soup came twice a day.

Worse, taunts and beatings grew constant. A man he describes as the "prison mullah" called him an infidel and encouraged inmates to abuse him. They beat him with wooden sticks, kicked him to the floor, punched him, and spit in his face. Someone produced a skullcap, forced it on him, and mocked him as Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. Then he was raped.

Seated in his bright kitchen now, Musa struggles to recall that time with words. He was "in despair," he said. His family had been forced to flee to Pakistan, kicked out of their home by the landlord and threatened by neighbors. He had only visits from the European couple to look forward to, and little news from outside. He began to write and smuggle out letters-24 in all-sent with the couple from the prison in a bag containing his dirty laundry.

One, a two-page letter addressed in Musa's cursive to "the international church of the world and to the president brother Barack Obama," caught the attention of political and church leaders. He described the torture in prison, his lack of legal representation (several government-appointed lawyers had refused the case of an "infidel"), and said: "I am alone between 400 holders of terrible values in the jail like a sheep." He signed it, "your destitute brother."

For weeks Musa said he believed he was only awaiting his execution. When officials told him he would be hanged in three days unless he converted back to Islam, he asked them to be sure to hang him publicly.

U.S. officials grew increasingly aware that the case was a black eye on the already bruised record of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. After the letter was publicized, the U.S. embassy and others successfully pressured Afghan officials to move Musa to the Kabul Detention Center, a facility inside the provincial governor's compound reserved mostly for Taliban fighters, where Musa slept in a corridor to avoid further beatings.

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