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Pakistan denies bail to ‘Afghan Girl’ from National Geographic photo

Sharbat Gula

A Pakistani court on Wednesday denied bail to Sharbat Gula, who was arrested for illegally living in Pakistan and is best known as the green-eyed Afghan girl who posed for a National Geographic magazine photograph 30 years ago.

Gula, now in her 40s, became a symbol of her country’s internecine wars when her photo as a young girl with haunted eyes appeared on the cover of National Geographic.

She has been held in jail in the north-west 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.

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.

Gula 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.

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