An Afghan operation to apprehend the fugitive former head of the national soccer federation has reportedly failed after a standoff with armed locals in northeastern Afghanistan.
Keramuddin Karim has been evading an Afghan arrest warrant issued last year over sexual abuse and other criminal charges stemming from allegations by female soccer players spanning a period of five years.
It is seen by many Afghans and outsiders as a test of the central government's ability and willingness to defend the rule of law and punish serious offenses against women in the war-torn country of 37 million people.
A local deputy governor in the Panjshir Province, Mohammad Amin Sedighi, told RFE/RL that the standoff on August 23 in the provincial capital of Bazarak between Interior Ministry forces and around 200 mostly armed residents lasted about 2 1/2 hours.
Provincial forces also were called to the scene.
A provincial security source who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operation publicly told RFE/RL that the operation ended in failure.
There were no reports of casualties.
The 58-year-old Karim is believed to be living in Bazarak, where he was governor until 2013 and where private militias can wield outsized power.
He was banned for life last year and fined 1 million Swiss francs ($1.1 million) by international soccer's governing body, FIFA -- the maximum penalty under FIFA's code of ethics.
Karim has denied the allegations.
But rights activists and foreign observers have praised the courage of the women who came forward to testify against the influential
Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), called Karim's case "a litmus test for the [Afghan] government" and said it is "incredibly important" that Karim be brought to justice.
"The problem is that the paradigm in Afghanistan is that these strongmen, these warlords and so on, have their own militias who protect them, and they operate, really, outside the law," Gossman said.
"This has been the case for some time, and it's just true that powerful officials just routinely evade justice, whether for human rights abuses or for corruption."
She suggested President Ashraf Ghani's administration should be held accountable by Afghans and by influential donor countries who have raised the Karim case with them in the past.
Gossman said the message it sent to Afghans is that their government "is unwilling or unable to protect them."
"If [the Afghan government] cannot even arrest Keramuddin Karim, how can it claim to be able to defend all the so-called gains since 2001?"
Ghani is currently preparing for long-awaited peace talks with the fundamentalist Taliban group that has been waging a nearly two-decade armed insurgency against the UN-backed government in Kabul and thousands of U.S.-led international troops in Afghanistan.
Gossman noted that few senior Afghan officials have been held criminally responsible for abuses.
"This should have been the one to break the pattern. It was so clear: he was indicted, people testified, the attorney general said they were willing to prosecute the case. But in the end, if the police can't even arrest him, because the local militia is more powerful, then all the structures put in place aren't enough, because that political will is missing."