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With Her Father On Death Row, Afghan Mother Attempts To Put Decade Of Incest, Abuse Behind Her

"He forced the rope onto my neck and said, 'If you go to the police again, it will be your last time. I won't let you live. This is the best life you can have here,'" Khatera says.

"He forced the rope onto my neck and said, 'If you go to the police again, it will be your last time. I won't let you live. This is the best life you can have here,'" Khatera says.

You might forgive Khatera, a grown mother of two, her belief in monsters.

After all, she says, one haunted her childhood. She recalls how, on good days, he lashed out at her or her long-suffering mother, beating them or simply reminding them that no one cared whether they lived or died. On bad days, she says, he inflicted indescribable pain while beating her to silence her muffled cries. On worse days, family members branded her a liar and insisted she keep her talk of any "monster" among them to herself.

"This is how every father shows his affection for his daughters," Khatera remembers her paternal grandmother saying when, as an 11-year-old, she told her of her rape at the hands of her father.

And for a long time she believed it, and suffered in silence and shame growing up surrounded by her father's extended family in a three-room brick home in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

But she knows better now and is determined to put a decade of incest and rage behind her.

She expects one final act in this tragedy, however, when Afghan authorities execute the man who is at once both her own father and the father of her two young children.

The condemned man, Haleem Khan, is sitting in a Kabul prison awaiting word on an appeal against his death sentence, handed down in May.

It is a rare conviction for a country where men traditionally dominate religious and political life and decades of warfare have left the justice system and other institutions weak or riddled with irregularities.

Women's rights and other activists express hope that Khatera's and similar cases in which female Afghan victims have successfully pursued justice against their abusers signal at least a gradual change for the better.

'No Fatherly Love For Me'

"I once asked my mother which mournful day was it when you gave birth to me? Which unlucky cloth was it that you wrapped me in that God gave me such a bitter life?" Khatera, who estimates her age at 23, recalls. "My father destroyed my fate. He turned me into a wretched being."

She has testified that the sexual abuse began after her father returned from years as a migrant laborer in neighboring Iran. Haleem was among the millions of Afghans to have fled after the Taliban came to power in 1996, meting out summary justice and seeking to impose a strict interpretation of Shari'a law on the country.

After the Taliban was ousted by a U.S.-led coalition at the end of 2001 in response to 9/11, he came back to the family home that Khatera and her mother shared with her paternal grandmother and aunts and uncles on her father's side.

But if there was joy for 9- or 10-year-old Khatera and her mother, it was short-lived.

When I would shout and cry for help, he would beat me and my grandmother would warn me not to raise my voice."

He had taken to calling himself by a different name, Jameel, and was burning with rage at his family, regularly abusing both Khatera and her mother, she says.

She recalls on numerous occasions seeing her father beat her mother, Zahra, until she lost consciousness.

She thinks she was first raped by her father when she was 11.

Khatera says two of the house's three rooms were occupied by her uncles and their families. She lived in the third with her mother and father, her two little brothers, her aunt, her unmarried uncle, and her grandmother.

"He would drag me to the room where we lived. Day or night didn't make any difference to him," Khatera remembers. "My uncles and aunt, my grandmother, everyone used to be in the same house. When I would shout and cry for help, he would beat me and my grandmother would warn me not to raise my voice."

She recalls asking her father why he would act that way toward his own daughter.

"He would tell me that 'God has given you to me for this reason. If I do not enjoy your beauty and youth, who else should?'"

She claims her father even confessed to her on one occasion of having sexually abused a young girl in Iran. He decided to return to Afghanistan, as she tells it, only after learning that the girl was pregnant.

"He used to look at me in a way that I would worry he wanted to do something sinful to me," Khatera says. "He had no fatherly love for me."

She remembers him choking her and threatening to kill her if she told anyone or otherwise sought help.

Three times, she says, he hung a rope in the house vowing to kill his wife and daughter.

Still, Khatera says, she told everyone in the family about the rapes, which would continue for the next decade: her mother, uncles, aunts, her grandmother. She was called a liar and told to keep quiet.
Of her mother, she says, "She was not able to help herself, let alone me. Nobody listened to her."

Treated Like Criminals

Heather Barr, a senior researcher on women's rights in Asia and a former Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), says that while Khatera's case is particularly awful, it is not unlike other cases in which violence against women is treated lightly or victims are treated as criminals.

"There is so much to be done to make the police and the prosecutors behave properly in these cases and take seriously violence against women," she says.

Barr notes Afghan authorities' continued misuse of laws against adultery, known as zina, "to treat women as criminals when they have actually been raped and sexually assaulted."

"The police are a part of the problem in a lot of these cases," she says, citing the case of one woman she interviewed who went to the police station after being raped, only to be raped by a police officer who was supposed to be investigating the crime.

But the problem extends beyond the local level, she adds.

"This was a real failure of Hamid Karzai's government," she says, in a reference to the man who ruled Afghanistan for 13 years. "The failure to take really seriously the violence against women in spite of having passed this new [Elimination Of Violence Against Women, or EVAW, law]," Barr says. "This is something that's urgent that [current President] Ashraf Ghani needs to take up."

The United Nations has noted significant distrust among Afghan women of the country's judicial system, saying in a report issued in April that women viewed the failure by Afghan law-enforcement and judicial authorities to enforce legal measures in a timely manner with "disappointment as well as fear."

We have always insisted that we have a law which is a powerful law. Now we should start implementing this law."

The report, which documented the experiences of 110 women who sought judicial redress for violence committed against them, found that "allegations of corruption, abuse of power, and lack of professionalism" influenced their preference for mediation, rather than criminal prosecution, to address their cases.

Women's rights activist Samira Hamidi says violence against women continues with impunity because so many women don't understand their rights. She argues that while there is corruption in the formal judicial system, the continued existence of informal gatherings and councils -- shuras and jirgas -- that compete with official courts for authority is part of the problem.

"We have always insisted that we have a law which is a powerful law," Hamidi says. "Now we should start implementing this law."

Khatera's story took a dramatic turn five years ago when, in her late teens, she became pregnant by her abusive father.

She had complained once to police already but been sent away.

After the birth of her daughter four years ago, she says, her father accused her of consensual sex with someone from the streets, foisting a badge of shame on his daughter in Afghanistan's conservative society. He was merely looking after Khatera's daughter, he would tell neighbors.

Three more times, sneaking out of the house with her daughter in tow when other family members were away, she went to the police and was met with disbelief. She recalls officers asking how it was possible that a man could commit such an act on his own child, particularly one who "prays five times a day and holds prayer beads." They concluded that Khatera "must have had an affair with someone."

Her father remained defiant and threatening in the face of her allegations, she says.

"He would tell me that 'the government will be on my side if you seek help there. ... You will be imprisoned and I will be the one who goes free,'" she recalls him saying. "He told me, 'I will get you jailed. There, police will sexually assault you and when you are unable to move, they will shoot you and throw your body in a stream. Nobody will even ask about you.'"

At one point, she says, her father dragged Khatera and her mother into the kitchen, where he had hung a rope.

"He forced the rope onto my neck and said, 'If you go to the police again, it will be your last time. I won't let you live. This is the best life you can have here.'"

But after she became pregnant by her father a second time, Khatera gave an interview to a local television station, essentially shaming authorities into taking her father into custody.

Khatera also attracted the attention of an activist who helped her seek legal advice from a nonprofit group called Justice For All.

Then, more than a decade after her father began the sexual assaults that had left her with two children, Khatera was vindicated when her pro bono lawyer arranged paternity tests in the United States that essentially confirmed her allegations.

Day In Court

On a sunny day in Kabul in May, Khatera approached a Kabul courthouse holding the hand of her 4-year-old daughter and with her mother alongside her, holding Khatera's infant son.

When he was sentenced to death, I was so happy that I left the courtroom and came outside. I am happy because scum like him should be removed from Afghanistan."

She had gained confidence throughout an emotionally grueling trial that had left the brown-eyed young woman looking far older than her 23 years. Unlike at earlier proceedings, she says, this judge never recommended that she "commit suicide after killing your children." No officer of the court had whispered to her that "first you should be punished."

She had also listened as her defendant father testified that Khatera "committed adultery with someone." She had heard him call her "a prostitute [who]...earns dollars and pays bribes to lawyers and prosecutors" and she responded tearfully that she didn't even have the money to get treatment for her jaundiced daughter.

But on this spring day, the judge in Kabul's First District Court would convict Khatera's father, Haleem Khan, and order that he be executed for his crimes against her.

"When he was sentenced to death, I was so happy that I left the courtroom and came outside. I am happy because scum like him should be removed from Afghanistan," she says, before seemingly realizing how shocking that might sound from a condemned man's daughter and adding, "The abuse my father inflicted upon me -- who knows how many fathers have abused their daughters this way and have resources and money and roam free. Such people should be removed."

She says she feels her honor has been restored and that the verdict confirms she was no villain, but a victim.

Saeeq Shajjan, an Afghan lawyer and Harvard law graduate, says judicial reforms are changing the legal landscape in Afghanistan. "Since last year, the judiciary and political will has been very positive," he says, citing five death sentences for a gang-rape in Paghman that sparked national outrage and other high-profile executions.

"This shows that the judicial system is starting to function slowly but gradually," Shajjan says. "All this gives me a lot of hope for the future of the judicial system to be independent, to make sure to gain people's lost confidence in the system."

Afghan lawmaker Shinkai Karokhel says of Khatera's case that "people who commit such crimes should be punished severely so other don't dare to repeat such abuse. This is an act against Islam, an act against humanity. Such people should be punished publicly so it's a lesson to others."

Khatera's father has appealed the sentence, and she says she lives in fear that he will somehow walk free once public attention to the case fades. She also fears retribution against her or her siblings from her father's side of the family, of whom she says "you feel either they will cut you into pieces or eat you alive."

But as Khatera and her mother struggle to support themselves since moving out of her father's former home, she says her overriding concern is for her children, born of tragedy but blameless.

"How should I tell them? It's difficult for me and for them, [but] it will be far more difficult when they come to know," she says. "[My daughter] asked me the other day where her father was. ... Then she asked me, 'Where is your father?' I told her that my father is in prison and your father has died."