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Tortured at 13 after wedding, Afghan girl finds rare justice

Kabul, Aug 13:  Afghan girl Sahar Gul refused to prostitute herself or have sex with the man she was forced to marry when she was about 13. Her  in-laws tortured her and threw her into
PTI August 13, 2012 22:08 IST
Kabul, Aug 13:  Afghan girl Sahar Gul refused to prostitute herself or have sex with the man she was forced to marry when she was about 13. Her  in-laws tortured her and threw her into a dirty, windowless cellar for months until the police discovered her lying in hay and animal dung, reports New York Times.

In July, an appeals court upheld prison sentences of 10 years each for three of her in-laws.

This decision  is seen as  a legal triumph underscoring the advances for women's rights in the past decade.  

Sahar Gul is recovering from her wounds, physical and emotional, in a women's shelter in Kabul.  

Sahar Gul, who is now about 14, grew up in Badakhshan, a poor, mountainous province in the north.  

As a young child she was shuffled around after her father died, ending up with her stepbrother, Mohammad, when she was about 9.  

She helped with the hard work - tending cows, sheep and an orchard of walnut and apricot trees, and making dung bricks for the fire - but her stepbrother's wife resented her presence.  

The woman pressured Mohammad to give Sahar Gul up for marriage after he was contacted by a man, about 30, named Ghulam Sakhi - even though she had not yet reached the legal marriage age of 16, or 15 with a father's consent.  

In effect, Ghulam Sakhi bought her: he paid at least $5,000, according to government officials and prosecutors, an illegal exchange. He drove off with Sahar Gul to his parents' home in Baghlan, another northern province hundreds of miles away.

Ghulam Sakhi's first wife had fled after he and his mother beat her for not bearing children, according to Rahima Zarifi, the chairwoman of Baghlan's women's affairs department, and the mullah in the mosque in the town in Baghlan.  

In his search for a new wife, there may have been a reason Ghulam Sakhi's family looked so far afield: they intended to force her into prostitution, according to Ms. Zarifi, who followed the case closely, and officials at the Ministry of Women's Affairs in Kabul.  

In Baghlan, the girl was immediately put to work cooking and cleaning, but she was able to resist consummating the marriage for weeks.  

She ran away to the house of a neighbor, who alerted both the police and her husband's family. Ghulam Sakhi's neighbors and the police forced him to sign a letter promising not to mistreat Sahar Gul, though they let him take her back.  

The warning had little effect. One day, when she complained of a headache, her mother-in-law, Siyamoi, tricked her into taking a sedative that she thought was medicine, said Mushtari Daqiq, the acting executive director of the aid group Women for Afghan Women and also Sahar Gul's lawyer.  

"When she woke up in the morning, she realized she had been used by her husband," Ms. Daqiq said.  

A neighbor named Ehsanullah said that one evening last summer, as his family ate dinner, they heard screaming coming from the house. The following morning his mother called at the house.  

He recounted what she saw: "Sahar Gul had lost a lot of weight, her hands were covered with bruises and wounds, one of her hands was broken, but her mother-in-law was forcing her to do the laundry." He added, "She kept her head down the whole time my mother was there."  

After a group of elders confronted Ghulam Sakhi, the screaming stopped.  

Frustrated that the girl could not perform the housework they expected, the family put her in the cellar, where she slept on the floor without a mattress, her hands and feet tied with rope.  

She was given only bread and water to eat. She was also beaten regularly. According to Sahar Gul and Ms. Daqiq, most of the beatings were at the hand of Amanullah, Ghulam Sakhi's elderly father.  

They described grotesque crimes, accusing Amanullah of hitting Sahar Gul with sticks, biting her chest, inserting hot irons in her ears and vagina, and pulling out two fingernails.  

"She was helpless," Ms. Daqiq said. "She had no hope for her life."  

Sahar Gul's uncle Khwaja, who lived nearby in the same province, and her stepbrother, Mohammad, tried to visit her a few times, but the family told them the girl was not home. The family then threatened Mohammad, warning that he had illegally given his sister to be married.  

"He had to accept and run back to Badakhshan without meeting his sister," Khwaja said.  

Then, last December, about six months after the marriage, they finally got to see her when they called at the house with two police officers and heard a voice coming from the cellar.  

"In the light of our flashlight, we found Sahar Gul lying on a pile of hay," said Shirullah, one of the police officers.  

Her dress was in rags, she was barely conscious and she could not stand after weeks in the dark.  

"She was constantly moaning," Shirullah said. "She was in a horrible situation. She couldn't move her body parts, and we carried her to the hospital in our arms."  

Ms. Zarifi and three nurses washed her and gave her soup and dates. "When she saw the food, she became very excited," Ms. Zarifi said.  

The police arrested the mother-in-law, Siyamoi, her daughter Mahkhurd and finally Amanullah, the father-in-law - who was discovered hiding in a burqa and a blanket.  

The family told the police that Ghulam Sakhi was in the Afghan Army in Helmand. That was later found to be untrue, according to local residents and Afghan officials, but the claim bought enough time for him to slip away from the authorities along with his brother, Darmak. They remain at large.  

With her mistreatment a big story in the Afghan news media, President Hamid  Karzai called for swift justice. In a district court in Kabul on May 1, the judge, speaking in front of a bank of microphones on national television, declared Sahar Gul's three in-laws guilty.  

According to neighbors and to officials who heard the in-laws' arguments in court, they acted the way they did mostly because they felt they had paid good money for a girl who they said was not pretty, who misbehaved and who would neither work as they demanded nor bear them children.  

Lawyers for the family members say that they deny beating or drugging Sahar Gul, and that her wounds were self-inflicted. They deny confining her in the cellar, and say they had no plans to send her into prostitution. The prostitution accusation was not addressed in court.  

The lawyers, who were provided by the legal group Da Qanoon Ghushtonky, or Demanders of Law, which is financed by international aid, argue that the political outcry caused the trial to be rushed through without due process.