KUNDUZ, Afghanistan >> The policeman spoke with calm and assurance as he insisted that he could not have raped the teenage daughter of a local sheepherder, because a mullah had married them just before intercourse.
“Once the marriage contract is done, any sexual intercourse is not considered rape,” said Khodaidad, 42, who until he was detained in the case had worked for the U.S.-trained Afghan Local Police.
His brother Ghulam Sakhi, accused by the young woman of participating in her abduction, sat beside Khodaidad on the floor of a small traditional reception room at the provincial jail here. He chimed in: “In Pashtun culture, the girls do not have the right to say who they marry and who they don’t want to marry. Whomever their parents choose for them, they should marry.”
Neither man has been formally charged, and both deny the abduction and rape allegations.
Prosecutors, family members and human rights advocates vehemently disagree with the suspects’ description of what happened to Lal Bibi, the young woman: They say there is little doubt that she was abducted and raped and that there was no marriage. They also challenge the idea that any marriage in such circumstances could be legitimate or exonerate the rape. Forced marriage is illegal under Afghan law, said Gen. Mohammed Sharif Safi, the military prosecutor in Kunduz.
However, for many people here, including the Kunduz police chief and the spokesman for the Interior Ministry — both of whom insisted that the case involved forced marriage, not rape — the former appeared to be less objectionable, although others would regard the line between the two as thin.
Interviews with more than a dozen people connected to the case suggest that much more is at stake than the fate of an 18-year-old sheepherder’s daughter. Her plight illuminates the persistence of tribal custom, the fragility of newly legislated protections for women and the power of armed men.
What constitutes rape is only one of the contentious issues in this case, which first came to light about a month ago, when Lal Bibi and her family took the rare step of going public with their accusations. The case galvanized President Hamid Karzai, who ordered that the culprits be brought to justice and that the police unit involved be disarmed.
However, some members of Afghanistan’s National Security Council argued that pursuing the allegations could tarnish the image of the Afghan Local Police, a network of militias they view as essential to maintaining security and keeping the Taliban at bay.
While sharing the goal of security, prosecutors and human rights advocates want to show that this is a new Afghanistan, where the rule of the gun should not trump the rule of law.
“The problem is that these people are illiterate and uneducated,” said Safi, the military prosecutor, speaking in general of the police and in particular of the unit involved in the case. “They haven’t been told their job description, they don’t have a code of conduct, most are former militia members who still have the mentality they had 15 years ago — they still think they can kill with impunity, rape with impunity.”
“I am very supportive of the Afghan Local Police program,” he added, “It’s a very good program, but I am very critical of the recruitment and selection process.”
Despite the program’s flaws, Safi said, as a prosecutor he would much prefer to deal with the local police, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry, giving him greater authority to act than is the case with other armed groups.
Lal Bibi and her family are unsure whether justice will be done or whether they will remain humiliated in their community for having a daughter who, by Pashtun tribal traditions, has been tarnished. Families in similar circumstances sometimes kill the victims because of the perceived dishonor.
Last week, the family, which had never visited the sprawling Afghan capital, Kabul, made the 10-hour journey by taxi from Kunduz city, where they had taken refuge, and paid for hotel rooms so that the girl’s father and grandfather could try to persuade government officials to hear their story.
“We had never been here before, and you know, it is very difficult to get officials to meet with you,” Lal Bibi’s grandfather, Hajji Rustam, said as he looked down at his shoes, which he had polished for his visits to the ministries.
Lal Bibi and her mother had come as well; as women they could not stay home alone in Kunduz. But they were in another room and were not in a condition to see visitors, the girl’s father said.
Two more suspects were detained last weekend, including the alleged ringleader in the crime, Cmdr. Muhammad Ishaq Nezaami, who commanded the local police unit and is accused of ordering Lal Bibi’s abduction. Previously, the Kunduz police chief and others said that Nezaami and the other man had left the area, but the two were apprehended in the outpost where they previously worked.
Karzai’s order to disarm the police unit involved in the incident seems to have been largely overtaken by events, now that four of the five unit members have been detained.
In the meantime, Gen. Samiullah Qatra, the Kunduz provincial police chief, and Col. Mohammed Shutor, the head of the local police program in Kunduz, have brought in a new unit. It is led by the brother of Nezaami, a move that has angered some residents who view it as a deliberate taunt.
“Nezaami’s brother was driving Nezaami’s truck, so people think he is back and that scares them,” said Hajji Balkhi, an elder from Lal Bibi’s village. “It is an insult, not just to Hajji Rustam but to all of us.”
Kunduz province, where the events occurred, is perhaps the most turbulent in northern Afghanistan. While a tenuous security has been achieved recently, barely 18 months ago the Taliban were a direct threat to the provincial capital of the same name; they assassinated the previous governor and the previous police chief, Gen. Daoud Daoud. Like Qatra, the previous chief had once serves as a commander with the Northern Alliance that supported U.S. forces in overthrowing Taliban rule in 2001.
Qatra, like his boss, Interior Minister Bismullah Khan, was enthusiastic when the Americans proposed forming the Afghan Local Police, groups of lightly armed local men trained by Special Operations forces to help fight the Taliban. Some informal armed groups with links to the Northern Alliance, as well as some Taliban who renounced the insurgency, were folded into these new local units, Shutor said.
For his part, Qatra would rather view Lal Bibi’s case as a family affair than as a serious crime.
“There hasn’t been any rape involved; it was a forced marriage,” he said briskly. “And in this case, the family has claimed their daughter was given as ‘baad,”’ referring to the practice of trading women as a payment to resolve disputes between families, clans or tribes.
Typically, when a girl is given in baad, it is the result of a meeting of elders in which both families have representatives.
Qatra did not deny that Nezaami’s brother now led the unit but said it was irrelevant.
“A crime is a personal thing; whoever does a crime should be punished,” he said. “You cannot punish my brother for the crime I have committed.”
He brushed off the idea that he might be trying to intimidate the family, saying that he had no choice but to replace the unit with another one.
“We need that outpost to prevent that village from falling into the hands of the Taliban,” he said.
That is small comfort to Lal Bibi and her family, since they feel they cannot return to their tents and sheep: They say they are under threat because they spoke out against the armed men who are supposed to keep them safe.
Safi, the prosecutor, said that he had dealt with a lot of cases, but that this one ““reaffirmed my stance against the mistreatment of women.”
Referring to the many women’s projects funded by the international community, he added: “I realized — all this money they spent to improve the situation of women, and there are still a lot of women who are mistreated every day and whose life condition has not changed much.”