National Geographic ‘Afghan girl’ denied bail in Pakistan


Sharbat Gula’s photograph by Steve McCurry became National Georgraphic’s most famous cover
Sharbat Gula’s photograph by Steve McCurry became National Georgraphic’s most famous cover

A Pakistani court refused bail on Wednesday (November 2) to an Afghan woman immortalised on a National Geographic cover after she was arrested in Pakistan and accused of being one of thousands of refugees using fake ID cards.

Pakistan last week arrested Sharbat Gula, whose haunting green eyes – captured in an image taken in a Pakistan refugee camp by photographer Steve McCurry in the 1980s – became the most famous cover in the magazine’s history.

She was accused of living in the country on fraudulent identity papers following a two-year investigation into her and her husband, who has absconded.

Interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told a press conference on Sunday the country would review her case on the grounds that “she is a woman” and the government “should see it from a humanitarian angle”.

She has been held in jail in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar since her arrest on Wednesday last week following an investigation by the Federal Investigation
Agency (FIA), which accuses her of possessing illegally obtained documents.

The special court for anti-corruption and immigration in Peshawar denied her bail, saying her application to be freed focused on human rights and did not contain any legal arguments.

“During her illegal stay in Pakistan, she twice misused her position by obtaining a Pakistani Computerised National Identity Card,” judge Farah Jamshed said.

Officials say Gula applied for a Pakistani identity card in Peshawar in 2014, using the name Sharbat Bibi.

She faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted of fraud, though it is more common for undocumented Afghan refugees to be deported than to serve time in prison.

Gula’s arrest comes amid Pakistani pressure to send 2.5 million Afghan refugees back home even though Afghanistan is facing a bloody Taliban insurgency and would struggle to look after so many returnees.

She was, for years, an unidentified celebrity after National Geographic published her image as a refugee in 1985, her defiant, pained eyes staring out from an unsmiling face, framed by a shawl over her head.

The image became a symbol of Afghanistan’s suffering during the 1980s Soviet occupation and US-backed mujahideen insurgency against it.

Afghanistan’s ambassador in Pakistan, Omar Zakhilwal, said the verdict contradicted government promises to set Gula free. He said the mother of four was suffering from
hepatitis.

“Despite being world famous, Sharbat Gula is a poor widow and the sole head of her family,” Zakhilwal said in a statement.

“I call on the Honourable Prime Minister of Pakistan, to whom I will also send a formal request, to intervene,” he said.