An Afghan woman immortalised on a National Geographic magazine cover is to be freed on bail days after being arrested in Pakistan for fraud, a government minister said on Sunday. The haunting image of Sharbat Gula, taken in a Pakistan refugee camp by photographer Steve McCurry in the 1980s, became the most famous cover image in the magazine’s history. Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested Gula on Wednesday for living in the country on fraudulent identity papers following a two-year investigation on her and her husband, who has absconded.
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“I think I will have to review this case because she is a woman and we should see it from a humanitarian angle,” Pakistan Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told a press conference. “But if we withdraw charges against her, deport her or give her a temporary visa to leave Pakistan, then we will have to take back cases against the officials who issued her fake ID card, they are real culprits and I do not want to let them off the hook in any manner,” he said.
“As a first step the FIA should arrange her bail as soon as possible so that she should get of jail,” Khan added. Investigators, who have uncovered thousands of fraud cases over the last decade, launched a probe into her application shortly after she procured the identity card. Officials say she applied for a Pakistani identity card in Peshawar in April 2014, using the name Sharbat Bibi.
The photo attached to her application featured the same piercing green eyes seen in McCurry’s famous image, only older.
Officials say the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) has so far re-verified 91 million ID cards and detected 60,675 fraudulent cards. Her arrest highlights the desperate measures many Afghans are willing to take to avoid returning to their war-torn homeland as Pakistan cracks down on undocumented foreigners.
Pakistan has for decades provided safe haven for millions of Afghans who fled their country after the Soviet invasion of 1979. The country hosts 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, according to UNHCR, making it the third-largest refugee hosting nation in the world. The agency also estimates a further one million unregistered refugees are in the country.