Diplomatic and legal efforts are underway in Pakistan to secure an early release from police custody of a green-eyed Afghan woman whose photograph as a young refugee was published on the cover of National Geographic in 1985.
Police arrested 46-year old Sharbat Gulla this past Wednesday at her residence in the city of Peshawar on charges of fraudulently obtaining Pakistani national identity cards for her herself and her two sons.
On Friday, Pakistani prosecutors said that Gulla was brought before a Peshawar court for the first time where she pleaded not guilty. But the court remanded her in judicial custody for further interrogation.
People caught with possessing illegal Pakistani nationality cards could face up to 14 years in prison and a financial penalty of up to $5,000 if convicted.
Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Hazrat Omer Zakhilwal, told VOA their legal team is in contact with relevant authorities and “we expect Sharbat Gulla to be released” when the court reconvenes on Tuesday (November 1)."
Rights activists outraged
Gulla’s arrest has outraged human rights and civil society activists in Pakistan while authorities in Afghanistan criticized it as part of an alleged ongoing harassment campaign trying to force Afghan refugees to leave the country.
Pakistani officials maintain that a nationwide crackdown on Afghan refugees with illegal national identity cards has led them to Gulla and other Afghans holding the documents. They say Pakistani officers involved in facilitating the Afghans get the cards have also been detained.
Ambassador Zakhilwal says he spoke to Pakistani foreign policy advisor, Sartaj Aziz, on Friday to convey Kabul’s concerns and was able to receive assurances to get Gulla released as quickly as possible.
The Afghan envoy lamented that the arrest of "one of the world’s most recognized and famous and Afghanistan’s most beloved image has deeply saddened all Afghans without exception and has hurt their emotions."
Gulla’s image published on the cover of National Geographic magazine 30 years ago won her international fame and symbolized the troubles facing Afghanistan under the occupation of invading Soviet forces at the time.
Steve McCurry, the war photographer who captured the image of the his ‘Afghan Girl’ with piercing green eyes, found her in Afghanistan in 2002.
Hiding to avoid arrest
Gulla resurfaced in Pakistan in 2014 but went into hiding to avoid arrest after local authorities accused her of buying a fake Pakistani identity card.
Top authorities, however, admit that with the help of "corrupt" officials working in the National Database and Registration Authority, tens of thousands of Afghans have obtained Pakistani nationality cards.
The crackdown on Afghans with illegal cards and officials involved in facilitating the process has intensified since May when fugitive chief of Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, was killed in a U.S. drone strike while he was traveling through Pakistan’s border province of Baluchistan with forged Pakistani travel documents.