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The New York Times, June 1, 2012

Rape Case, in Public, Cites Abuse by Armed Groups in Afghanistan

By Alissa J. Rubin

Lal Bibi is an 18-year-old rape victim who has taken a step rarely seen in Afghanistan: she has spoken out publicly against her tormentors, local militiamen, including several who have been identified as members of the American-trained Afghan Local Police.

She says she was raped because her cousin offended a family linked to a local militia commander, who then had his men abduct her around May 17.She was chained to a wall, sexually assaulted and beaten for five days, she said.

A number of Afghan women who are victimized like Lal Bibi are later killed by their relatives because they believe the women have brought dishonor to the family. Extraordinarily, in this case, Lal Bibi’s relatives brought the battered girl to Kunduz Hospital, near their home in northern Afghanistan, and filed a complaint with the governor. They hoped for official justice even while holding out the possibility that her death might be the only way to restore the family’s honor.

“I am already a dead person,” she said in an interview, her voice breaking.

“If the people in government fail to bring these people to justice I am going to burn myself,” she said. “I don’t want to live with this stigma on my forehead. People will mock me if these men go unpunished, so I want every single one of them to be punished.”

In addition to stretching the bounds of conservative Afghan tradition, her plight is a test of the government’s willingness to challenge the impunity of the many armed groups operating in the country, in particular the Afghan Local Police, which provides security in Afghanistan’s rural expanses. These lightly trained and American-backed security forces are considered by the United States military to be one of the best hopes of improving stability in remote areas, even as human rights groups and residents have linked some to abuses, especially in northern Afghanistan.

Lal Bibi with her mother in Kunduz, Afghanistan. She is a rape victim
Lal Bibi with her mother in Kunduz, Afghanistan. If the daughter's attackers are not punished, she should die, her mother said. (Photo: The New York Times)

“She is very brave that she came out and talked to the media,” said Nedara Geya, the head of the Afghan government’s women’s affairs department in Kunduz. “She has set an example for the rest of the rape victims.”

Like a number of areas in the north, Kunduz Province has become a patchwork of armed militias with overlapping territories. In addition to the Afghan Local Police, who are attached to the government through the Interior Ministry, there are many freelance groups, as well as others financed by international forces to guard otherwise unsecured areas. In the past year, both official and unofficial armed groups in Kunduz Province have been involved in abuses.

American military officials said that as far as they could determine, members of the Afghan Local Police were not involved in abusing Lal Bibi, saying they hoped that justice would be done in any case. However, a number of the local authorities, including the governor, the military prosecutor for Kunduz, as well as the Afghan Local Police director for the province, said the men who had abducted her and beat her were A.L.P.members.

Because of that government connection, the provincial military prosecutor has decided to take up her case. There were differing accounts of whether the man accused of raping her was a member of the A.L.P., but all agreed that his brother was a local commander in the force.

“All of the men are part of the first 300 A.L.P. who were trained by the American Special Forces,” said the prosecutor, Gen. Mohammed Sharif Safi. “It is not the first time that they have committed such a horrible crime. All of them are a bunch of illiterate and uneducated bandits and thugs who go around harassing people.”

So far, two people have been arrested in the case, including Khudai Dad, who is accused of raping Lal Bibi, and his brother, Sakhi Dad, who is an Afghan Local Police member, according to the Kunduz governor’s office and the police officer in charge of the province’s A.L.P. force, Col. Mohammed Shokur.

Not yet detained, however, is the chief suspect in Lal Bibi’s abduction, Cmdr. Muhammad Ishaq Nezaami, who disappeared shortly after she was grabbed.

He has a troubled past. He was arrested six months ago on charges of attempted rape in a different case but was cleared, General Safi said, adding that he believed that powerful people intervened on Commander Nezaami’s behalf. However, Colonel Shokur, the police official, said the charges were dropped in that case because of lack of evidence.

Lal Bibi is the youngest daughter in a Kuchi family, ethnic Pashtuns who are seminomadic herders. She and her family live in a tent in the scrub land outside the city of Kunduz and raise sheep for their livelihood.

Her nightmare began when a distant male cousin, Mohammed Issa, an Afghan Local Police member, started a relationship with a local girl. In one account, he tried unsuccessfully to elope with her. In another version, he contracted to marry her and then could not pay the bride price and fled. In either case, he was thought to have dishonored the father, who was furious and sought compensation.

Although Lal Bibi was only a cousin of the offender and in no way connected to the episode, in tribal justice one possible settlement would have been for her family to give Lal Bibi to the wronged girl’s family as payment, a practice known as baadal. But no tribal settlement was reached. Instead, Commander Nezaami, the local A.L.P. leader, came with armed men to her home and grabbed her, according to her and her family’s accounts.

“I was busy milking the sheep with my mother, and suddenly a car pulled up close to our tent,” Lal Bibi said. “They first grabbed my father and tied his hands, and then the armed men grabbed me and my mother from behind, and I didn’t know what happened and why they were there.”

She said that Commander Nezaami’s men threw her into a truck and took her to the home of one of his subcommanders, Sakhi Dad, whose brother was the father of the girl whose honor was seen as compromised by Lal Bibi’s distant cousin.

She told the rest of the story in rushed gasps: She was chained to a wall, she said, and Khudai Dad raped her repeatedly. Other men came in and beat her.

“I would begin to scream every time one of them came into the room, because I knew they were going to beat me or rape me again,” she said.

The experience is written on her body, according to a report by the regional Kunduz Hospital. “The doctors found signs that she was beaten and tortured,” said Dr. Shukur Rahimi, the head of the hospital. And, there was physical evidence consistent with her account of being chained.

An examination also confirmed that her hymen had been broken. That can be tantamount to a death sentence in Afghanistan, where women are considered fit to marry only if they are proved to be virgins on their wedding night. Some who fail that test are killed by relatives to restore the family’s honor.

In interviews, both Lal Bibi’s mother and grandfather said they were thinking of killing her unless justice was done, although the fact that they had come forward suggested that they were hoping that the government will prosecute the men and redress the wrongs done to her and her family through the legal system.

“If nobody wants to solve our problem, then they should behead her; we don’t want her,” her mother said.

The girl’s grandfather, Hajji Rustam, who lives with the family, seemed torn between tribal traditions that require that a tarnished girl be killed and deep feeling for his granddaughter’s distress.

He said: “Put yourself in our shoes: What if somebody raped your daughter? I am sure when you see that no one is helping you to bring the culprits to justice, you will be ready to kill yourself, kill your daughter.”

Then, he looked over at his granddaughter, whom he has been staying with since the rape: “During the day, she sits and doesn’t talk and is silent for hours and suddenly she screams. Her soul has been broken, and she is a very sad person.”

An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Kunduz, Afghanistan, and Habib Zahori from Kabul.

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