An Afghan couple is suing a US Marine and his wife after accusing them of abducting a baby girl, in a case that has drawn the US government into a tangled custody battle.
The infant was pulled from rubble in 2019 after her parents and five siblings were killed during a raid by US special forces, according to court documents obtained by the Associated Press.
She was about two months old and miraculously survived, suffering a fractured skull, broken leg and serious burns.
The child was treated for months in a US military hospital in Afghanistan, where initially even her name was not known.
After a long search the International Committee of the Red Cross and Afghan authorities identified a young newlywed Afghan couple as relatives.
However, according to court records, a lawyer in the US Marine Corps, who was in Afghanistan, heard about the baby when she was being treated in the hospital, and before any relatives had been found.
He and his wife, who was at their home in Virginia, decided to adopt the baby as an act of Christian goodwill.
Child was ‘a stateless war orphan’
The marine, Joshua Mast, told a court in Virginia that she was a “stateless war orphan” and that Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan President at the time, was signing a waiver of jurisdiction.
A judge in Virginia then granted custody to Mr Mast and his wife Stephanie, and they were named as guardians on a birth certificate.
However, the waiver from Mr Ghani never materialised and Islamic law prohibits non-Muslims from adopting Afghan babies.
After the Afghan couple had been identified as relatives, and with the baby still in Afghanistan, the US justice department stepped in and declared the Masts’ adoption “invalid”. As a result, the Afghan couple were handed the baby, by then aged seven months, and reportedly wept with joy.
The young Afghan man told the Associated Press: “We didn’t think she would come back to her family alive. It was the best day of our lives.”
The ensuing saga was detailed in hundreds of pages of court documents obtained by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, and in interviews the news agency conducted with some of those involved.
In the court documents the baby was identified as “Baby L” and the identity of the Afghan couple has also been kept secret.
After the infant was given to them the Afghan couple spent two years raising her in the Muslim faith and gave her an Afghan name. The man worked in a medical office, and the woman, who speaks three languages including English, was studying.
The woman told the Associated Press: “She [Baby L] loved showing off her new clothes, and loved getting henna on her hands every week. Whenever I did makeup or brushed my hair, she wanted to do it for me.”
Adoption finalised with baby still in Afghanistan
Although Baby L remained in Afghanistan, the Masts gave her a Western name in a US state court, according to court records.
They finalised the adoption, enrolled her in the Pentagon’s health care system, and scheduled an appointment with a pediatrician.
Through an intermediary they kept in contact with the Afghan couple and offered to bring the child to the US for medical care.
When the US chaotically withdrew its remaining forces from Afghanistan last year Mr Mast offered to get the couple, and the little girl, evacuated to the US and they accepted, according to court records.
They arrived at an airport in Washington where they were met by Mr Mast, who had a passport for the child with the last name “Mast” in it.
The Afghan couple then began a resettlement process at a US military base where, several days later, Mr Mast took custody of Baby L.
Masts claim Afghan couple aren’t the lawful parents
In September the Afghan couple sued the Masts accusing them of false imprisonment, conspiracy, fraud and assault.
The Masts have responded that they are the legal parents of the child, now aged three, and have “acted admirably” to protect her.
They have called the Afghan couple’s claims “outrageous, unmerited attacks” on their integrity, and argued in court documents that they have worked “to protect the child from physical, mental or emotional harm”.
In asking a judge to dismiss the case, they said the Afghan couple are “not her lawful parents”. A lawyer for the Masts also cast doubt on whether the Afghan couple were actually related to the baby.
He added: “Joshua and Stephanie Mast have done nothing but ensure she receives the medical care she requires, at great personal expense and sacrifice, and provide her a loving home.”
The Afghan woman told the Associated Press: “After they took her, our tears never stop, Right now, we are just dead bodies. Our hearts are broken. We have no plans for a future without her. Food has no taste and sleep gives us no rest.”
The original incident which left Baby L orphaned occurred on September 6, 2019, when US forces attacked a remote compound in Afghanistan.
According to court documents submitted by the Masts it was an special forces operation to capture or kill a terrorist. The terrorist detonated a suicide vest, killing five of his six children, and their mother was shot while resisting arrest.
Lawyers for the Afghan couple have claimed the baby’s parents were farmers who died in the raid.