Kabul: When she refused to prostitute herself or have sex with the man she was forced to marry when she was about 13, officials said, Sahar Gul's in-laws tortured her and threw her into a dirty, windowless cellar for months until the police
discovered her lying in hay and animal dung.
In July, an appeals court upheld prison sentences of 10 years each for three of her in-laws, a decision heralded as a legal triumph underscoring the advances for women's rights in the past decade. She is recovering from her wounds, physical and emotional, in a women's shelter in Kabul.
But to many rights advocates, Sahar Gul's case, which drew attention from President Hamid Karzai and the international news media, is the exception that proves the rule: a small victory that masks a still-depressing picture of widespread instances of abuse of women that never come to light.
Further, advocacy groups fear that even the tentative progress that has been achieved in protecting some women could be undone if the West's focus on Afghanistan now begins to shift away as NATO troops withdraw and the international money pumped into the economy diminishes.
"If you take away that funding and pressure, it is not sustainable," said Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.
As more details of Sahar Gul's case have come to light - including the fact that the abuse continued even as, time and again, neighbors, police officers and her family members voiced suspicions that something was wrong - it has only reinforced how vulnerable women and girls still are in Afghanistan, particularly in rural areas where under-age marriages are common and forced ones are typical.
Sahar Gul, who is now about 14, grew up in Badakhshan, a poor, mountainous province in the north. As a young child she was shuffled around after her father died, ending up with her stepbrother, Mohammad, when she was about 9. She helped with the hard work - tending cows, sheep and an orchard of walnut and apricot trees, and making dung bricks for the fire - but her stepbrother's wife resented her presence. The woman pressured Mohammad to give Sahar Gul up for marriage after he was contacted by a man, about 30, named Ghulam Sakhi - even though she had not yet reached the legal marriage age of 16, or 15 with a father's consent.
In effect, Ghulam Sakhi bought her: he paid at least $5,000, according to government officials and prosecutors, an illegal exchange. He drove off with Sahar Gul to his parents' home in Baghlan, another northern province hundreds of miles away.
Ghulam Sakhi's first wife had fled after he and his mother beat her for not bearing children, according to Rahima Zarifi, the chairwoman of Baghlan's women's affairs department, and the mullah in the mosque in the town in Baghlan. In his search for a new wife, there may have been a reason Ghulam Sakhi's family looked so far afield: they intended to force her into prostitution, according to Ms. Zarifi, who followed the case closely, and officials at the Ministry of Women's Affairs in Kabul.
In Baghlan, the girl was immediately put to work cooking and cleaning, but she was able to resist consummating the marriage for weeks.
She ran away to the house of a neighbor, who alerted both the police and her husband's family. Ghulam Sakhi's neighbors and the police forced him to sign a letter promising not to mistreat Sahar Gul, though they let him take her back.
The warning had little effect. One day, when she complained of a headache, her mother-in-law, Siyamoi, tricked her into taking a sedative that she thought was medicine, said Mushtari Daqiq, the acting executive director of the aid group Women for Afghan Women and also Sahar Gul's lawyer.
"When she woke up in the morning, she realized she had been used by her husband," Ms. Daqiq said.
A neighbor named Ehsanullah said that one evening last summer, as his family ate dinner, they heard screaming coming from the house. The following morning his mother called at the house. He recounted what she saw: "Sahar Gul had lost a lot of weight, her hands were covered with bruises and wounds, one of her hands was broken, but her mother-in-law was forcing her to do the laundry." He added, "She kept her head down the whole time my mother was there."
After a group of elders confronted Ghulam Sakhi, the screaming stopped.
Frustrated that the girl could not perform the housework they expected, the family put her in the cellar, where she slept on the floor without a mattress, her hands and feet tied with rope. She was given only bread and water to eat. She was also beaten regularly. According to Sahar Gul and Ms. Daqiq, most of the beatings were at the hand of Amanullah, Ghulam Sakhi's elderly father.
They described grotesque crimes, accusing Amanullah of hitting Sahar Gul with sticks, biting her chest, inserting hot irons in her ears and vagina, and pulling out two fingernails.
"She was helpless," Ms. Daqiq said. "She had no hope for her life."
Sahar Gul's uncle Khwaja, who lived nearby in the same province, and her stepbrother, Mohammad, tried to visit her a few times, but the family told them the girl was not home. The family then threatened Mohammad, warning that he had illegally given his sister to be married. "He had to accept and run back to Badakhshan without meeting his sister," Khwaja said.
Then, last December, about six months after the marriage, they finally got to see her when they called at the house with two police officers and heard a voice coming from the cellar.
"In the light of our flashlight, we found Sahar Gul lying on a pile of hay," said Shirullah, one of the police officers.
Her dress was in rags, she was barely conscious and she could not stand after weeks in the dark.
"She was constantly moaning," Shirullah said. "She was in a horrible situation. She couldn't move her body parts, and we carried her to the hospital in our arms."
Ms. Zarifi and three nurses washed her and gave her soup and dates. "When she saw the food, she became very excited," Ms. Zarifi said.
The police arrested the mother-in-law, Siyamoi, her daughter Mahkhurd and finally Amanullah, the father-in-law - who was discovered hiding in a burqa and a blanket.
The family told the police that Ghulam Sakhi was in the Afghan Army in Helmand. That was later found to be untrue, according to local residents and Afghan officials, but the claim bought enough time for him to slip away from the authorities along with his brother, Darmak. They remain at large.
With her mistreatment a big story in the Afghan news media, Mr. Karzai called for swift justice. In a district court in Kabul on May 1, the judge, speaking in front of a bank of microphones on national television, declared Sahar Gul's three in-laws guilty.
According to neighbors and to officials who heard the in-laws' arguments in court, they acted the way they did mostly because they felt they had paid good money for a girl who they said was not pretty, who misbehaved and who would neither work as they demanded nor bear them children.
Lawyers for the family members say that they deny beating or drugging Sahar Gul, and that her wounds were self-inflicted. They deny confining her in the cellar, and say they had no plans to send her into prostitution. The prostitution accusation was not addressed in court.
The lawyers, who were provided by the legal group Da Qanoon Ghushtonky, or Demanders of Law, which is financed by international aid, argue that the political outcry caused the trial to be rushed through without due process.
Rather than showing the lack of legal protections for women, they argued, Sahar Gul's case underscores the weakness of Afghanistan's still-developing legal system, one that can easily be swayed by politicians like Mr. Karzai.
Siyamoi and Mahkhurd are now 2 of 171 prisoners in a women's prison in Kabul. On a recent morning there, the two women insisted they were innocent and railed ferociously at their accusers.
"We are being cheated by the court," Siyamoi said. "If you think I am a criminal, why don't you pull out my fingernails?"
A few miles away across Kabul, Sahar Gul lives in a shelter provided by Women for Afghan Women, one of seven shelters the organization has established nationally for abuse victims since it was founded in 2007.
Sahar Gul played in the sun in the garden in a golden dress and purple shawl and pink bracelets, a round-cheeked, gangly girl.
She had made a new friend at the shelter, a 14-year-old girl whose face was scarred by acid by a sister's thwarted suitor.
Sahar Gul still bears the scars and bruises of her ordeal, but her caregivers said she was recovering and becoming gradually more independent. She said she had ambitions.
"I want to become a politician and stop other women suffering the same," she said.
Now, however, rights groups fear that schools and clinics for girls may close as international money dries up and the political climate in Afghanistan becomes more religiously conservative, undermining the fragile lattice of pro-women support groups, government ministries and nongovernmental organizations as well as laws specifically created in the past few years to protect women.
A new 2009 law to eliminate violence against women was cited in the sentencing of Sahar Gul's abusers, but the law is still barely applied, according to a United Nations report published in November, and it has not been formally adopted.
Women's shelters are under threat, with a conservative justice minister describing them as "brothels," while a new family law that could make it easier for abused women to divorce is being held up.
In such a climate, the fear is that Sahar Gul's successful rescue may turn out to be an aberration rather than a new norm, and that it will not help those women whose suffering is not discovered.
"We have many cases perhaps graver than this where women are murdered," Ms. Zarifi said. "No one hears anything about them."