Afghan Couple Accuse US Marine of Abducting Their Child

The younger Afghan couple raced to the airport in Kabul, clutching their child woman shut amid the chaotic withdrawal of American troops final yr.

The child had been rescued two years earlier from the rubble of a U.S. Special Forces raid that killed her dad and mom and 5 siblings. After months in a U.S. navy hospital, she had gone to reside along with her cousin and his spouse, this newlywed couple. Now, the household was certain for america for additional medical therapy, with assistance from U.S. Marine Corps lawyer Joshua Mast.

When the exhausted Afghans arrived on the airport in Washington D.C. in late August 2021, Mast pulled them out of the worldwide arrivals line and led them to an inspecting officer, in response to a lawsuit they filed final month. They have been stunned when Mast offered an Afghan passport for the kid, the couple mentioned. But it surely was the final title printed on the doc that stopped them chilly: Mast.

They didn’t comprehend it, however they’d quickly lose their child.

It is a story about how one U.S. Marine grew to become fiercely decided to convey residence an Afghan warfare orphan, and praised it as an act of Christian religion to avoid wasting her. Letters, emails and paperwork submitted in federal filings present that he used his standing within the U.S. Armed Forces, appealed to high-ranking Trump administration officers and turned to small-town courts to undertake the child, unbeknownst to the Afghan couple elevating her 7,000 miles away.

The little woman, now 3 ½ years previous, is on the heart of a high-stakes tangle of a minimum of 4 court docket circumstances. The Afghan couple, determined to get her again, has sued Joshua and his spouse Stephanie Mast. However the Masts insist they’re her authorized dad and mom and “acted admirably” to guard her. They’ve requested a federal choose to dismiss the lawsuit.

The ordeal has drawn within the U.S. departments of Protection, Justice and State, which have argued that the try and spirit away a citizen of one other nation may considerably hurt navy and overseas relations. It has additionally meant {that a} baby who survived a violent raid, was hospitalized for months and escaped the autumn of Afghanistan has needed to cut up her brief life between two households, each of which now declare her.

5 days after the Afghans arrived within the U.S., they are saying Mast – custody papers in hand – took her away.

The Afghan girl collapsed onto the ground and pleaded with the Marine to provide her child again. Her husband mentioned Mast had known as him “brother” for months; so he begged him to behave like one, with compassion. As an alternative, the Afghan household claims in court docket papers, Mast shoved the person and stomped his foot.

That was greater than a yr in the past. The Afghan couple hasn’t seen her since.

“After they took her, our tears by no means cease,” the lady informed The Related Press. “Proper now, we’re simply lifeless our bodies. Our hearts are damaged. Now we have no plans for a future with out her. Meals has no style and sleep provides us no relaxation.”

Pulled from the rubble

The story of the child unfolds in a whole lot of pages of authorized filings and paperwork obtained beneath the Freedom of Info Act, in addition to interviews with these concerned, pieced collectively in an AP investigation.

In a federal lawsuit filed in September, the Afghan household accuses the Masts of false imprisonment, conspiracy, fraud and assault. The household has requested the court docket to defend their id out of considerations for his or her relations again in Afghanistan, they usually communicated with AP on the situation of remaining nameless.

The Masts name the Afghan household’s claims “outrageous, unmerited assaults” on their integrity. They argue in court docket filings that they’ve labored “to guard the kid from bodily, psychological or emotional hurt.” They are saying the Afghan couple are “not her lawful dad and mom,” and Mast’s lawyer solid doubt on whether or not the Afghans have been even associated to the child.

“Joshua and Stephanie Mast have carried out nothing however guarantee she receives the medical care she requires, at nice private expense and sacrifice, and supply her a loving residence,” wrote the Masts’ attorneys.

The child’s id has been stored personal, listed solely as Child L or Child Doe. The Afghan couple had given the child an Afghan title; the Masts gave her an American one.

Initially from Florida, Joshua Mast married his spouse Stephanie and attended Liberty College, an evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Virginia. He graduated in 2008, and obtained his legislation diploma there in 2014.

In 2019, they have been residing with their sons in Palmyra, a small rural Virginia city, when Joshua Mast was despatched on a brief project to Afghanistan. Mast, then a captain within the U.S. Marine Corps, was a navy lawyer for the federal Heart for Legislation and Navy Operations. The U.S. Marines declined to remark publicly, together with different federal officers.

That September in 2019 was one of many deadliest months of all the U.S. occupation in Afghanistan, with greater than 110 civilians killed within the first week alone.

On Sept. 6, 2019, the U.S. attacked a distant compound.

No particulars about this occasion are publicly obtainable, however in court docket paperwork Mast claims that categorised studies present the U.S. authorities “despatched helicopters filled with particular operators to seize or kill” a overseas fighter. Mast mentioned that reasonably than give up, a person detonated a suicide vest; 5 of his six kids within the room have been killed, and their mom was shot to demise whereas resisting arrest.

Sehla Ashai and Maya Eckstein, attorneys for the Afghan couple, dispute Mast’s account. They are saying the child’s dad and mom have been really farmers, unaffiliated with any terrorist group. And so they described the occasion as a tragedy that left two harmless civilians and 5 of their kids lifeless.

Each side agree that when the mud settled, U.S. troops pulled the badly injured toddler from the rubble. The child had a fractured cranium, damaged leg and severe burns.

She was about 2 months previous.

Mast known as the child a “sufferer of terrorism.” His lawyer mentioned she “miraculously survived.”

“Do the suitable factor”

The child was rushed to a navy hospital, the place she was positioned within the care of the Protection Division.

The Worldwide Committee of the Purple Cross informed AP that they started trying to find her household with the Afghan authorities, typically a plodding course of in rural elements of the nation the place record-keeping is scant. At first, they didn’t even know the child’s title.

In the meantime, Mast mentioned, he was “aggressively” advocating to get her to the U.S. Over a number of months, he wrote to then-Vice President Mike Pence’s workplace, in response to reveals filed in court docket. He mentioned his colleagues within the navy tried to speak to President Donald Trump concerning the child throughout a Thanksgiving go to to Bagram Airfield. Mast additionally mentioned he made 4 requests over two weeks to then-White Home Chief of Workers Mick Mulvaney, asking for assist to medically evacuate the child “to be handled in a secure atmosphere.”

The Masts have been represented by Joshua’s brother Richard Mast, an lawyer with the conservative Christian authorized group Liberty Counsel, which says it isn’t concerned on this case. Not one of the Masts responded to repeated requests for interviews.

In emails to navy officers, Mast alleged that Pence informed the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to “make each effort” to get her to america. Mast signed his emails with a Bible verse: “‘Stay for an Viewers of 1, for we should all seem earlier than the judgment seat of Christ.”

Pence’s spokesman, Marc Quick, didn’t reply to requests for remark.

The U.S. Embassy by no means heard from Pence’s workplace, mentioned a Division of State official, who requested anonymity as a result of they didn’t have permission to talk publicly concerning the state of affairs. However they did start getting extremely uncommon inquiries about the potential for sending the child to the U.S. The diplomats have been rattled by the suggestion that the U.S. may simply take her away; they believed the child belonged to Afghanistan.

“I used to be conscious that it is probably not easy crusing forward, however that simply made me extra decided to do the suitable factor,” the State Division official mentioned.

About six weeks after the child was rescued, the U.S. Embassy known as for a gathering, attended by representatives of the Purple Cross, the Afghan authorities and the American navy, together with Mast. The State Division wished to ensure everybody understood its place: Below worldwide humanitarian legislation, the U.S. was obliged to do all the pieces potential to reunite the child along with her subsequent of kin.

On the assembly, Mast requested about adoption, the State Division official mentioned. Attendees from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs defined that by Afghan legislation and customized, they needed to place the child along with her organic household. If that didn’t work, the Afghan Youngsters’s Courtroom would decide a correct guardian.

The American idea of adoption doesn’t even exist in Afghanistan. Below Islamic legislation, a toddler’s bloodline can’t be severed and their heritage is sacred. As an alternative of adoption, a guardianship system known as kafala permits Muslims to absorb orphans and lift them as household, with out relinquishing the kid’s title or bloodline.

American adoptions from Afghanistan are uncommon and solely potential for Muslim-American households of Afghan descent. The State Division acknowledges 14 American adoptions from Afghanistan over the previous decade, none previously two years.

But two days after the embassy assembly, a letter was despatched to U.S. officers in Kabul from Kimberley Motley, a near-celebrity American lawyer in Afghanistan, the State Division official mentioned. Motley wrote that she was representing an unnamed involved American citizen who wished to undertake this child. Motley declined to be interviewed by the AP.

Mast additionally continued his appeals to American politicians. The U.S. Embassy started listening to from Congressional staffers concerning the child, and diplomats met with a navy normal, the official mentioned.

The final in flip put a “gag order” on navy personnel concerning the child and mentioned “nobody was to advocate on her behalf,” Mast wrote in a authorized submitting.

However he wasn’t prepared to surrender.

Midway around the globe

The Masts looked for an answer midway around the globe — in rural Fluvanna County, Virginia, the place they lived.

They petitioned the native Juvenile and Home Relations Courtroom, describing the child as a “stateless minor recovered off the battlefield.” In early November 2019, a choose granted them authorized custody. The title of this choose shouldn’t be publicly obtainable as a result of juvenile data are sealed in Virginia.

A couple of days later, a certificates of overseas beginning listed Joshua and Stephanie Mast as dad and mom.

The custody order was primarily based on the Masts’ assertion that the Afghan authorities — particularly now-deposed President Ashraf Ghani — meant to waive jurisdiction over the kid “in a matter of days,” in response to a listening to transcript. The waiver by no means arrived.

In an e mail to AP, Ghani’s former deputy chief of workers Suhrob Ahmad mentioned there may be “no file of this alleged assertion of waiver of Afghan jurisdiction.” Ahmad mentioned he and the top of the Administrative Workplace of the President don’t keep in mind any such request going by means of the court docket system as required.

The U.S. Embassy heard that Mast was granted custody. Navy attorneys assured them that the Marine was simply making ready in case Afghanistan waived jurisdiction, however wouldn’t intervene with the seek for the child’s household, in response to the State Division official.

But all alongside they deliberate to undertake the child, in response to data obtained from the state of Virginia beneath a Freedom of Info Act request. Richard Mast wrote the Legal professional Normal’s workplace in November 2019 that the Masts “will file for adoption as quickly as statutorily potential.”

Within the meantime, Joshua Mast enrolled the child within the Protection Division well being care system, made an appointment at a U.S. Worldwide Adoption Clinic and requested to have her evacuated.

Then got here a shock: The Purple Cross mentioned they’d discovered her household. She was about 5 months previous.

In late 2019, Afghan officers informed the U.S. Embassy that the child’s paternal uncle had been recognized, and he determined his son and daughter-in-law have been greatest suited to take her, in response to court docket data. They have been younger, educated newlyweds with no kids but of their very own, and lived in a metropolis with entry to hospitals.

The younger man labored in a medical workplace and ran a co-ed faculty, which is uncommon in Afghanistan. His spouse graduated from highschool on the prime of her class, and is fluent in three languages, together with English. That they had married for love, not like many Afghans in organized marriages.

Mast expressed doubts concerning the newly-found uncle, describing him in court docket data as “an nameless particular person of unknown nationality” and claiming that turning the child over to him was “inherently harmful.” He requested the Purple Cross to place him in contact, however they refused.

In emails to a U.S. navy workplace requesting evacuation, Mast alleged that he learn greater than 150 pages of categorised paperwork, and concluded the kid was a “stateless minor.” Mast believed she was the daughter of transient terrorists who’re residents of no nation, his lawyer mentioned. He additionally speculated that if reunited along with her household, she could possibly be made a toddler soldier or a suicide bomber, offered into intercourse trafficking, hit in a U.S. navy strike, or stoned for being a lady.

However Afghanistan didn’t waver: the kid was a citizen of their nation.

Mast’s lawyer despatched the U.S. Embassy a “stop and desist” letter warning them to not hand the child over, in response to the State Division official. However on February 26, 2020, the Masts realized that the U.S. was making ready to place the child, now almost 8 months previous, on a aircraft early the next morning to affix her household in one other Afghan metropolis.

The Masts, represented by Richard Mast, sued the secretaries of Protection and State in a federal court docket in Virginia, asking for an emergency restraining order to cease them. The Masts claimed they have been the child’s “lawful everlasting authorized guardians.”

Inside hours, 4 federal attorneys — two from the Justice Division and two from the U.S. Legal professional’s Workplace — have been on the cellphone, and Richard Mast was in Federal Decide Norman Moon’s workplace.

Richard Mast mentioned the child shouldn’t be “condemned to endure.” He complained that the Afghan authorities had not performed DNA testing to verify the household they discovered was actually associated to the kid.

However the Justice Division attorneys mentioned that they had no proper to mandate how the Afghan authorities vets the household, and that the Purple Cross — which has reunited relations in warfare zones for greater than a century — had confirmed it was carried out correctly. Additional, the federal authorities’s attorneys described the Masts’ custody paperwork from state court docket as “illegal,” “deeply flawed and incorrect,” and “issued on a false premise that has by no means occurred” — that Afghanistan would waive jurisdiction.

Decide Moon requested Richard Mast: “Your shopper shouldn’t be asking to undertake the kid?”

“No sir,” Mast responded. “He needs to get her medical therapy in america.”

Justice Division attorneys argued that america should meet its worldwide obligations. Legal professional Alexander Haas put it merely: Taking one other nation’s citizen to america “would have probably profound implications on our navy and overseas affairs pursuits.”

Decide Moon dominated in opposition to the Masts, and the child stayed in Afghanistan.

The subsequent day, she was united along with her organic household. The Afghan couple wept with pleasure.

“We didn’t suppose she would come again to her household alive,” mentioned the younger Afghan man. “It was the very best day of our lives. After a very long time, she had an opportunity to have a household once more.”

An additional measure of tenderness

Because the months handed in her new residence in Afghanistan, the woman cherished getting henna painted on her palms and dressing up in new garments, the Afghan couple mentioned. She at all times wished to do her new mom’s make-up, or brush her hair.

“She knew about Allah, about garments, concerning the names of meals,” the lady wrote.

The couple cared for her as if she was their very own daughter, however with an additional measure of tenderness due to the unimaginable tragedy she’d already suffered.

“We by no means wished her to really feel she couldn’t have one thing she wished,” mentioned the younger man.

In the meantime, Mast continued to fret that the kid was “in an objectively harmful state of affairs,” Richard Mast wrote in court docket paperwork. The Masts requested Kimberley Motley, the lawyer, to trace down the household, saying he wished to get the kid medical therapy within the U.S, Motley mentioned in court docket data.

Motley contacted the Afghan household in March 2020, a few week after the child was positioned in her new residence. Motley is known as as a defendant of their lawsuit, however her lawyer, Michael Hoernlein, informed AP the claims in opposition to her are “meritless.” In court docket paperwork, Motley’s attorneys describe her function as skilled and above-board, and requested that the claims in opposition to her be dismissed.

Motley had initially gone to Afghanistan in 2008 beneath an American-funded initiative to coach native attorneys. She stayed, largely representing foreigners charged with crimes. She took on high-profile human rights circumstances, gave a TED Discuss and wrote a guide.

Over the course of a yr, Motley known as for updates concerning the baby and sometimes requested for pictures. In July, across the child’s first birthday, the couple despatched Motley a snapshot of the kid in swim trunks, smiling and splashing in a wading pool.

On the identical time, the Masts’ adoption case was nonetheless winding by means of the court docket system in Fluvanna County, Virginia. In December 2020, the state court docket granted the Masts a last adoption order primarily based on the discovering that the kid “stays as much as this time limit an orphaned, undocumented, stateless minor,” in response to a federal lawsuit. Fluvanna County Circuit Courtroom Presiding Decide Richard E. Moore didn’t reply to repeated requests for readability on how the circumstances progressed.

Worldwide adoption attorneys have been baffled.

“When you’ve got relations there who’re saying, ‘no, no, no, we would like our daughter, we would like our little woman,’ it’s over,” mentioned Irene Steffas, an adoption and immigration lawyer. “There isn’t a manner the U.S. goes to get right into a match with one other nation relating to a toddler that’s a citizen of that nation.”

Karen Legislation, a Virginia lawyer who makes a speciality of worldwide adoption, mentioned state legislation requires an accredited company to go to thrice over six months and compile a report earlier than an adoption will be finalized. The kid have to be current for the visits — however this child was 1000’s of miles away.

On July 10, 2021, across the child’s second birthday, Motley facilitated the primary cellphone name between the Afghan couple and Joshua Mast, with the help translator Ahmad Osmani, a Baptist pastor of Afghan descent. Mast informed the Afghan couple that until they despatched the kid to america for medical care, she may “be blind, mind broken, and/or completely bodily disabled.”

However the Afghan man now elevating her, who had labored within the medical area, didn’t suppose her burn scars, a leg damage and mysterious allergic reactions amounted to a life-altering situation in the best way Mast described. The couple declined sending the child to america.

The girl was pregnant, and anxious concerning the threat of such a protracted flight. They mentioned they requested Mast: May they take the child to Pakistan or India for therapy as a substitute?

The reply was no, their lawsuit says. The conversations continued for months. Osmani, the translator, vouched for the Masts and described them as form and reliable, in response to the lawsuit, which names him as a defendant.

Osmani didn’t reply to requests for remark. He requested a federal choose to throw out the lawsuit, and mentioned he by no means deceived anybody. He was solely a “mere translator.”

His attorneys wrote: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

“Dwelling in a darkish jail”

In late summer time 2021, the Taliban seized energy in Afghanistan. Mast mentioned he contacted the household to convey the child to the U.S. “earlier than the nation collapsed.” He mentioned he was “extraordinarily involved that they might not get one other probability.” The couple agreed.

Mast utilized for particular visas for the Afghan household and for relations of Osmani, the translator, in response to court docket data. They characterised the Afghan couple as an escort for a “U.S. navy dependent” — the child.

In an e mail to U.S. officers filed in court docket, Mast wrote that Osmani was “very instrumental to serving to a U.S. Marine…undertake an Afghan baby.”

Quickly, the Afghan household started their days-long journey to the U.S. Joshua Mast informed them to say he was their lawyer.

“If anybody asks to speak about your paperwork, present them this textual content: I’m Main Joshua Mast, USMC. I’m a Decide Advocate…” Mast texted them detailed instructions for how one can cope with U.S. authorities, their lawsuit says.

When the household arrived in Germany for a stopover, Joshua Mast and his spouse greeted them on the air power base. It was the primary time that they had met in particular person.

In Germany, the Masts visited the Afghan household’s room thrice to attempt to get the child to journey individually with them, “insisting that it will be simpler for the toddler to enter america that manner,” the Afghan couple recalled of their lawsuit. They refused to let the woman out of their sight.

When the Afghans lastly landed in america, they started explaining that the kid was too younger to have Afghan paperwork. That’s once they declare Joshua Mast pulled out an Afghan passport.

Inside was the identical picture of the kid within the wading pool, however altered to alter the background, add a shirt and easy her hair. Mast informed the Afghans to “preserve quiet” about having his title on her passport, their lawsuit alleges, so it will be simpler to get medical care.

The Afghan couple requested to be taken to Fort Pickett Army Nationwide Guard base, a location specified by Mast, in response to the lawsuit. 1000’s of Afghan refugees have been briefly housed there.

Quickly after, they mentioned, troopers got here to their room and informed them they have been transferring. An odd girl sat behind the van subsequent to a automotive seat, in response to court docket data, and the child fussed as she buckled her in.

The van pulled as much as a constructing they didn’t acknowledge, the place a lady who known as herself a social employee mentioned the Masts have been the woman’s authorized guardians. Confused and frightened, the kid cried and the couple begged.

But it surely did no good. Mast took the child to his automotive, the place his spouse was ready, the lawsuit says.

That they had misplaced her.

Of their closely redacted response to the lawsuit, the Masts acknowledge they “took custody” of the kid; they mentioned their adoption order was legitimate they usually did nothing incorrect.

Richard Mast can be named as a defendant within the Afghan household’s lawsuit. He wrote in authorized paperwork that his brother’s adoption of the kid was “selfless;” it saved each the kid, and the Afghan household combating to get her again, “from the evils of life beneath the Taliban.”

The Afghan couple believed that their child was stolen, they usually instantly sought assist at Fort Pickett to get her again.

“However the taking part in area was not stage,” their lawyer, Ashai, informed the AP. The couple “have been compelled to navigate a posh and complicated system abroad during which that they had simply arrived, after having survived the best trauma of their lives.”

In the meantime, the couple says in court docket paperwork, Osmani warned them to not contact a lawyer or the authorities, and urged that Mast may give them the child again in the event that they dealt instantly with him.

And they also tried to take care of contact with Mast. They have been additionally afraid of him. If he may abduct their baby in broad daylight, they anxious he may damage them too, their attorneys wrote in authorized filings.

The Afghan girl plunged right into a deep melancholy and, regardless of being 9 months pregnant, stopped consuming and ingesting. She couldn’t sleep. Her husband was afraid to depart her alone.

“Since we now have come to America, we now have not felt happiness for even at some point,” the Afghan man informed the AP. “We really feel like we live in a darkish jail.”

His spouse gave beginning to a lady on October 1, 2021. The younger mom’s grief grew to become overwhelming. A month later, she thought-about suicide and was hospitalized.

Quickly the couple sought authorized assist; by December 2021, the Afghan couple had requested the Fluvanna choose to reverse the adoption. However these proceedings, nearly one yr in, have been opaque and gradual.

On Feb. 27, 2022, when the Afghan child was 2 ½ years previous, the Masts traveled to the Mennonite Christian Meeting in Fredericksburg, Ohio, to share their pleasure throughout a particular church service. In a video promoting the occasion known as “Strolling in Religion,” the pastor apologized to congregants that it will not be on-line, as a result of the Marine would share “very confidential, categorised info.”

“Unexpected occasions gave the couple an surprising alternative to face as much as defend harmless life,” learn this system flyer. “Come hear how God’s mighty hand allowed for a outstanding deliverance.”

Pastor John Risner informed the AP that the Masts had requested the service be confidential, and he didn’t need to betray their belief by disclosing any particulars.

All he would say is that their story is “superb.”

No happiness right here

The destiny of the Afghan baby is now being debated in secret proceedings in a locked courtroom within the village of Palmyra, Virginia, residence to about 100 folks.

Earlier this month, Joshua Mast arrived on the Fluvanna County courthouse alongside along with his spouse and his brother Richard. Mast was wearing his starched Marine uniform, holding his white and gold hat in his hand. The listening to stretched on for roughly eight hours.

The proceedings have been utterly shielded from public view, mandated by presiding Decide Moore. The AP was not allowed contained in the courtroom. Courtroom clerk Tristana Treadway refused to offer even the docket quantity, saying she may “neither affirm nor deny” the case existed in any respect.

Greater than a dozen attorneys streamed into the courthouse, carting bins of proof, and every mentioned they have been forbidden from talking.

Mast stays an energetic responsibility Marine, and has since been promoted to main. He now lives along with his household in North Carolina. The Afghan toddler has been with them for greater than a yr.

In Texas, the Afghan couple continues to grieve the lack of the kid. The child the lady gave beginning to shortly after arriving within the U.S. simply turned 1. The younger mom had deliberate to lift the ladies as sisters.

However they’ve by no means met.

“There’s nothing to have fun with out her. There isn’t a happiness right here,” the Afghan man mentioned. “We’re counting the moments and days till she’s going to come residence.”


Retired Related Press Afghanistan and Pakistan Bureau Chief Kathy Gannon, AP researcher Rhonda Shafner and AP Pentagon reporter Lolita Baldor contributed to this report.

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