(AP) – An Afghan couple who came to the U.S. as refugees is suing a U.S. Marine and his wife in federal court over the alleged kidnapping of their baby girl.
The baby was pulled from the rubble two years earlier after her parents and five siblings were killed in a US military raid. After months of treatment at a US military hospital in Afghanistan, she went to live with a newly married Afghan couple, identified by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Afghan authorities as her relatives.
But unbeknownst to the couple, court records say, a U.S. Marine Corps attorney on temporary assignment in Afghanistan learned about the baby while she was still in the hospital. With his wife back home in Virginia, he felt compelled to adopt an Afghan baby and hailed it as an act of Christian faith.
The little girl, now 3½ years old, is at the center of a high-stakes tangle of at least four court cases. The ordeal was sparked by the US Departments of Defense, Justice and State, which previously argued that trying to take a citizen of another country could significantly damage military and foreign relations. US Marines and federal officials did not comment on the record.
The Afghan family asked the court to protect their identity out of concern for their family in Afghanistan and agreed to speak to the AP on condition of anonymity.
As authorities searched for her Afghan relatives, attorney Joshua Mast, represented by his brother Richard Mast, told a Virginia District Court judge that the baby was a “stateless war orphan,” records show: They assured the judge that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani himself planned to sign a waiver of jurisdiction within days. A state judge agreed and granted Joshua and his wife, Stephanie Mast, custody, naming them as guardians on the birth certificate.
That waiver never came, and an aide to Ghani told the AP earlier this month that there was no record of any discussion about it. Furthermore, he said that such a request would have to go to court, which did not happen. Finally, Islamic law prohibits non-Muslims from adopting Afghan babies.
Still, with documents naming them as her guardians, Masts asked a federal judge in Virginia to block the U.S. government from handing over the baby, court records show. Attorneys for the Justice Department stepped in and said the state adoption was “invalid.” The judge refused to intervene and the baby was handed over to her relatives.
An Afghan couple – who say they had no idea what was going on in US courts – cried tears of joy when they met the 7-month-old baby.
“We didn’t think she would return alive to her family,” said the young man from Afghanistan. “It was the best day of our lives.”
Over the next two years, the Afghan couple says, they settled down as a family and raised their baby in the Muslim faith. The woman, who speaks three languages, including English, continued her studies. The man worked in a medical office. They fondly remember those first years.
“She loved showing off her new clothes and loved putting henna on her hands every week. “Whenever I did my makeup or combed my hair, she wanted to do it for me,” said the woman.
Although the baby remained in Afghanistan, Joshua and Stephanie Mast gave the growing toddler a Western name in U.S. state court, according to court records. They completed the adoption, enrolled her in the health care system of the Ministry of Defense, and even scheduled an appointment with a pediatrician.
Mast – through an interlocutor – stayed in touch with the Afghan couple, offering to bring their child to the U.S. for medical care, court records say. But the couple say they told Mast the trip was too strenuous.
That all changed last summer when the US began its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Amid the outbreak of violence and instability, Mast offered to have the couple and their baby girl evacuated to the US, records show. They took him up on his offer.
When the exhausted Afghans arrived at the Washington airport, court filings allege, Mast pulled them out of the international arrivals line and led them to an inspector. They were surprised when Mast presented the child’s Afghan passport, the couple said. But it was the last name printed on the document that stopped them: Mast.
They didn’t know it, but they were about to lose their baby. Just days later, as the Afghan couple began the process of moving to the Fort Pickett Army National Guard base, they claim Mast confronted them, took the girl — then 2 1/2 years old — and drove off.
The Masts insist in court documents that they are her legal parents and have “behaved very well” to protect her. They asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the Afghan couple “are not her legal parents.” Mast’s lawyer questioned whether the Afghans were even related to the baby.
The Afghan couple does not give up.
“After they took her, our tears never stop,” the woman told The Associated Press. “Right now we’re just dead bodies. Our hearts are broken. We have no plans for the future without her. Food has no taste, and sleep gives us no rest.”