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National Geographic’s famed ‘Afghan girl’ to be deported from Pakistan

A judge ruled Nov. 4 that Sharbat Gula, National Geographic’s green-eyed “Afghan Girl,” will be deported from Pakistan, where she has lived as a refugee for more than three decades.

The Afghan woman who was the subject of an iconic magazine cover will be deported from Pakistan, where she has lived as a refugee for more than three decades, a judge ruled Friday.

Sharbat Gula, the green-eyed “Afghan girl” who stared out from the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1985, was also ordered to serve 15 days in jail and pay a fine of about $1,000 for possessing a forged Pakistani identity card.

Because Gula has already spent 11 days in detention, she will be sent back to Afghanistan on Monday, her lawyer, Mubashir Nazer, told reporters outside the courtroom in Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan.

But her story could yet have a happy ending. Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, Omar Zakhilwal, said the government would help resettle Gula in her home country and that President Ashraf Ghani would meet her upon her arrival in Kabul.

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“With utmost delight, I announce that Sharbat Gula is now free from the legal troubles she endured over the past couple of weeks,” Zakhilwal wrote on his Facebook page.

“She soon will also be free from an uncertain life of a refugee as she will be on her way back to her own country as soon as next Monday where she still is a beloved image and a national icon.”

Her $1,000 fine was paid by the Afghan consulate in Peshawar.

A heavy police contingent brought Gula, clad in a full-length burka that obscured her famous eyes, to the courthouse from a hospital where she was being treated for hepatitis C.

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Gula, who is in her 40s, was jailed last week for possessing a forged Pakistani national identity card. She faced up to 14 years in prison.

Her arrest came as Pakistan cracks down on the millions of Afghan refugees living in the country, accusing them of being a security threat. Human rights groups say authorities have harassed and extorted refugees and raided their houses in an effort to force them to return to Afghanistan despite worsening violence there.

Sharbat Gula

Sharbat Gula on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic.

 

(National Geographic / XX)

Thousands of Afghans — who began arriving in Pakistan following the 1979 Soviet invasion of their country — are believed to have obtained fake identity documents. Earlier this year, authorities arrested two officials who allegedly issued a Pakistani passport to Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the Afghan Taliban leader who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in May in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.

After her arrest, Gula was transferred from the jail in Peshawar to the city’s Lady Reading Hospital for treatment for hepatitis C, which claimed the lives of her husband and daughter.

Gula’s blood was sent for testing and she remained under observation, said the hospital spokesman, Zulfiqar Babakhel, who added that the Pakistani government was paying for her treatment.

“She is looking healthy and relaxed,” Babakhel said before the court hearing.

Earlier this week, a special anti-corruption and immigration court had denied bail for Gula on the grounds that her lawyer acknowledged that she had acquired the identity card even though she was not Pakistani.

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Gula’s lawyer argued that she should have been granted bail on humanitarian grounds.

Gula became the face of Afghanistan in 1985 when she appeared on what became the bestselling edition ever of National Geographic magazine. She was about 12 years old when photographer Steve McCurry encountered her at a Pakistani refugee camp and captured the portrait.

Gula’s identity was unknown until the magazine tracked her down in 2002 and her family allowed her to meet McCurry.

Despite having one of the most recognizable faces of the 20th century — at least for a noncelebrity — Gula continued to live in poverty as a Pakistani refugee. Her husband, Rahmat, a baker, died four years ago, and she is the sole breadwinner for her three surviving children.

The human rights group Amnesty International condemned Pakistan’s decision to deport Gula as “a grave injustice.”

“For decades, she was known as the world’s most famous refugee and seen as a symbol of Pakistan’s status as a generous host,” Champa Patel, the group’s South Asia director, said in a statement.

“Now, by sending her back to a country she hasn’t seen in a generation and her children have never known, her plight has become emblematic of Pakistan’s cruel treatment of Afghan refugees.”

Special correspondent Ali reported from Peshawar and staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.

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shashank.bengali@latimes.com

Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia

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UPDATES:

9:13 a.m.: This article was updated with a statement from the Afghan ambassador.

5:48 a.m.: This article was updated to include reaction from Amnesty International.

This article was originally published at 4:30 a.m.


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