(ADDS NEW EXPECTED TRIAL DATE, MORE DETAILS, COMMENTS ADVOCACY GROUP JUBILEE CAMPAIGN USA)
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (BosNewsLife)-- Afghanistan has postponed the trial of a disabled man who faces the death penalty for allegedly converting from Islam to Christianity, trial observers and officials said Tuesday, November 23.
Said Musa, 45, was to appear without a lawyer Sunday, November 21, in front of a court where a judge was expected to use 'sharia', the word for Islamic law, to reach a verdict.
Officials suggested that the trial was delayed to give the court more time to study the case amid international concerns he may be executed under legislation that was introduced by the toppled Taliban regime.
The trial is expected to begin next Sunday, November 28, said Ann Buwalda
Executive Director of Jubilee Campaign USA, a major advocacy group supporting the Christian's case.
"Thanks be to God who answers prayer, the trial of Said Musa has been delayed until next Sunday," Buwalda told BosNewsLife in a statement. "This dear brother has been illegally imprisoned for six months, tortured, abused and threatened with death, all because he is a Christian."
Musa was detained in Kabul in May after footage was nationally televised of Muslim converts to Christianity being baptized. The broadcast triggered protests throughout the country and a national government crackdown against Christian converts, according to rights activists and Christians.
In published remarks, Qamaruddin Shenwari, director of the Kabul courts' north zone, said the judge will likely take Islamic law into account, despite international concerns.
"According to Afghanistan's constitution, if there is no clear verdict as to whether an act is criminal or not in the penal code of the Afghan Constitution, then it would be referred to sharia law where the judge has an open hand in reaching a verdict," Shenwari was quoted as saying.
Under sharia law, converting from Islam to Christianity is punishable by death.
International Christian Concern (ICC), a United States-based advocacy group, told BosNewsLife it was surprised about the trial as Afghanistan is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which bans executions for crimes not mentioned by national or international law.
"Millions of dollars have been invested by the international community to build Afghanistan’s judicial system by training judges, prosecutors, and others to follow Afghanistan's constitution," recalled Aidan Clay, ICC Regional Manager for the Middle East.
"The fruit of this investment, as far as religious freedom is concerned, is that an innocent man may be tried under the same Sharia law used by the Taliban," Clay added.
Last week, the U.S. State Department also said in its annual International Religious Freedom Report that "respect for religious freedom" decreased in Afghanistan in the last year, "particularly toward Christian groups and individuals."
Clay said he fears Musa will "stand before a Muslim court without representation and will likely be asked to renounce his Christian beliefs. His response to that question may determine his fate, and before a sharia court, his sentence may be death."
He said ICC has asked its supporters to contact Afghan embassies and consulates in their countries asking Afghan officials to grant a fair trial to Said Musa, whose name is also spelled by some organizations as Sayed Mossa.
Clay stressed that ICC also demands that Musa's trial be delayed until he is given legal representation. Musa suggested in a handwritten letter carried out of his Kabul prison that so far lawyers have refused to defend him.
"Nobody [want to be my] defender before the court. When I said 'I am a Christian man', he [a potential lawyer] immediately spat on me and abused me and mocked me...I am alone between 400 [people with] terrible values in the jail, like a sheep," Musa wrote.
Buwalda said Jubilee Campaign, in partnership with justice group Advocates International "is doing everything that we can to get a lawyer to this dear brother." However "there are still serious hurdles to overcome, and we need to pray for the Lord's favor. In cases like these one recalcitrant official or prison guard could seriously hamper our attempt to see justice done. But we serve a God who is able to direct the hearts of kings, and we pray that He will guide our steps."
In his letter, Musa also appealed to "the international church of the world and...President Brother [Barack] Obama and to the head of [International Security Assistance Force] ISAF in Afghanistan" to rescue him from his current jail. Additionally, Musa asked Christians to pray for him.
He made clear he is concerned about those staying behind, his wife and six children.
His oldest child is eight and one is disabled as she can not speak, he wrote. Musa himself is an amputee, dependent on a prosthesis for one of his legs.
It is not the first time Christians face execution in Afghanistan. In 2006 Italy granted asylum to a Christian convert, Abdul Rahman, who faced the death penalty for "abandoning Islam."
Despite reported persecution, there may be as many as 10.000 Christian converts in heavily Islamic Afghanistan, according to some Christian rights activists. Other issued figures range from as few as 500 to 8,000 Christians in a country where openly expressing Christian views can reportedly lead to killings by officials, militants or family members.