The prisoners placed a skullcap on Said Musa’s head and mockingly called him Jesus Christ as he languished for month after month in one of Kabul’s squalid prisons.
Fellow inmates and prison guards alike beat him with wooden sticks, kicked him, punched him and spat in his face. Musa also accuses them of sexually abusing him.
His crime? Converting to Christianity, for which he faces the death penalty if convicted.
Surly prison guards and secret service agents surrounded Musa, 45, when I met him at a detention centre in Kabul’s police headquarters last week.
He limped into the prison governor’s office on his remaining leg — an anti-personnel mine blew off the other in the early 1990s, when he was serving in the Afghan army — looking haggard and speaking nervously in Dari, the local language. The guards refused to let him talk to me in English.
Musa converted to Christianity in Kabul nine years ago. A westerner baptised him by pouring a jug of water over his head and reciting verses from the Bible.
He was too afraid to explain his reasons, but friends said graphic television reports of a bombing in Karachi had made him question why some Muslims chose to kill innocents.
“The Bible taught me to love my enemies,” he said. “It taught me to turn the other cheek if someone harmed me.”
Musa’s ordeal began last May when a television station broadcast pictures of other Afghans being baptised in Kabul. The footage, on Noorin TV, provoked anti-Christian demonstrations by students, some of whom burnt effigies of the Pope. Western Christians say they share their faith with more than 1,000 Afghans in Kabul.
After the programme, Karzai instructed the head of Afghanistan’s spy service and his interior minister to “take immediate and serious action to prevent this phenomenon”, according to Waheed Omar, his spokesman.
Weeks later the security forces launched their crackdown. Scores of Christians fled the country as police and intelligence agents searched homes suspected of harbouring them.
Only Musa, a Red Cross employee who had worked for 15 years in Kabul’s orthopaedic centre, and a man named Ahmed Shah Reza were arrested. Musa now accuses Reza of being a mole for Grand Ayatollah Mohseni, a hardline Shi’ite cleric who runs a madrasah (religious school) in the capital.
Before Musa’s arrest, Reza allegedly posted Musa’s photograph, address and details of his beliefs on an Iranian website. Reza was released a month ago on the orders of the attorney-general, whose office said he had renounced Christianity.
On the day of his arrest, Musa received a call from a friend who said the security services were after him. He fled to the German embassy in search of sanctuary. Before he reached its gates, a plainclothes policeman seized him and bundled him into the back of a car.
He was later transferred to the custody of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), whose agents grilled him for 72 days. “They beat me and tortured me with sticks. They told me to convert back to Islam. When I refused they called me a dirty infidel,” Musa said.
“They asked me to name other Afghans and foreigners who were Christians. I told them I didn’t know any others, so they beat me some more.”
The NDS transferred Musa to Kabul’s provincial jail. There, the torture grew worse. Prisoners and guards beat him with batons and kicked and punched him. They spat in his face and mocked him by calling him Jesus Christ, he said.
“I pretended to be deaf and dumb,” he said. “I tried not to listen to them when they called me a dirty infidel. All I could do was pray for them. They thought I was mad.”
When a mullah and a judge visited him in his cell, they threatened to execute him in three days if he refused to reconvert. When he declined, the mullah ordered the guards to take “this unclean animal” from his cell and beat him, he recalled.
In desperation, Musa wrote to human rights groups, embassies and US President Barack Obama, begging to be transferred to another prison.
In poor English, Musa wrote: “Prisoners in jail did many bad behaviour with me about my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. For example they did sexual things with me. Beat me by wood, by hands, by legs.”
His landlord evicted his wife, their three sons and three daughters when he heard about Musa’s arrest. Neighbours spat at the family and called them infidel-lovers as they fled.
“They treated us badly once they found out,” said Musa’s wife Guljan, who was furious with him when he converted. “I called him an infidel but he kissed me and told me that he still respected my religion. I grew to love him again. My husband is a sensible man who knows right from wrong. He strongly believes in his faith. This is his choice.”
Following pressure from the American embassy, the authorities moved Musa to another jail, where he now sleeps in the corridor outside the head guard’s office to avoid further beatings.
He rarely ventures outside into the yard for exercise, afraid of the abuse he will be forced to endure from his fellow inmates. He spends his time listening to the BBC. His requests for a Bible have been refused.
He has yet to stand trial. However, defence lawyers said his case was hopeless. Five have visited him during his eight months in detention and each one has either refused to represent him or dropped him after death threats.
“I met Musa in his cell. I told him the only way we can free you is if you renounce Christianity,” said Mostafa Mahmoud, a legal aid lawyer. “Under sharia [Islamic law] you will be forgiven and you won’t be executed. Of course, he refused so I dropped the case. I wouldn’t have won.”
Musa’s friends and supporters have launched a campaign for his release, accusing human rights groups including the Red Cross and the United Nations of failing to lobby the Afghan government for his release.
“They’ve done nothing so far to help him,” said a Christian campaigner. “Afghanistan signed the human rights convention but still the West sits back and does nothing.”
The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission said it was an extremely sensitive case. “There’s an army of radical mullahs in this country who could turn this into a battle against much more than just freedom of religion,” said Dr Nader Nadery, its spokesman.
Western groups have deliberately remained silent because they fear that any public campaign could further infuriate a government that increasingly blames foreign interference for the country’s woes.
Musa is not the only Afghan Christian in jail in Afghanistan. Shoaib Asadullah was arrested in October when he gave a copy of the New Testament to a friend, who later handed him to the police. The only defence for either man would be to plead insanity. Christian groups say Asadullah is being force-fed with drugs to make him appear mad before a court. Insanity is a defence to apostasy in Afghanistan.
Musa remains adamant that he will die before he denounces Christianity.
“I don’t care if they crucify me upside down,” he said. “My spirit will still be alive. I am only afraid of God. Only he can send my soul to hell.”