3 Nov 2016

'Afghan Girl' denied bail after ID card arrest

8:37 am on 3 November 2016

An Afghan woman immortalised on the cover of National Geographic magazine has been denied bail after being arrested on fraud charges.

Sharbat Gula

Sharbat Gula Photo: AFP / Steve McCurry

Sharbat Gula, whose haunting green eyes made her famous, fled Soviet-occupied Afghanistan as a child and was pictured in 1984 in a refugee camp in Pakistan.

Mrs Gula has been accused of living in Pakistan on fake identity papers and faces up to 14 years in jail.

There are strict restrictions to getting an ID card, which is needed for opening a bank account or to buy property, and Pakistan recently launched a crackdown on fake cards.

Mrs Gula allegedly applied for an identity card in April 2014, using the name Sharbat Bibi. She was arrested in Peshawar, near the Afghan border after a two-year investigation.

On Sunday Pakistan's Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said she should be granted bail, but a judge denied her application, saying she had failed to make her case.

If the fraud claims are true, she is one of thousands of Afghan refugees deploying desperate measures to avoid returning to their war-torn homeland.

The celebrated "Afghan girl" picture was taken by photographer Steve McCurry in 1984 in a refugee camp in north-west Pakistan, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It led to one of the most recognisable magazine covers ever printed.

Photographer Steve McCurry with the picture he took of Sharbat Gula, who he tracked down again 17 years later. Museum of Arts and Crafts, Hamburg, Germany, 2013.

Photographer Steve McCurry with his image of Sharbat Gula, who he tracked down again 17 years later. Photo: AFP

He tracked her down 17 years later, living in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. Mrs Gula later moved back to Pakistan and he kept in touch.

He told the BBC he had hired a lawyer for her.

Mr McCurry added that he believed the Pakistani authorities may have singled her out because she is so well known.

"Perhaps they are trying to send the message to other Afghan refugees that 'we couldn't care who you are, we are going to hunt you down and drive you back into your country'.

Recent UN figures show that Pakistan hosts 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees. A further one million unregistered refugees are believed to be in the country.

It has been illegal for non-Pakistanis to have IDs since they were first issued in the 1970s but the law was not enforced.

At first, the procedure was for a village council member to endorse a citizen's application. A BBC reporter in Islamagad said few village councillors objected to endorsing an application for someone who, to them and to the rest of the village, was no longer a refugee but a neighbour.