Afghanistan: Couple accuse U.S. Marine of abducting baby


The younger Afghan couple raced to the airport in Kabul, clutching their baby woman shut amid the chaotic withdrawal of American troops final 12 months.

The baby had been rescued two years earlier from the rubble of a U.S. Special Forces raid that killed her mother and father and 5 siblings. After months in a U.S. navy hospital, she had gone to stay along with her cousin and his spouse, this newlywed couple. Now, the household was sure for the United States for additional medical remedy, with the help of 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 keeping with a lawsuit they filed final month. They have been stunned when Mast offered an Afghan passport for the kid, the couple mentioned. But it was the final title printed on the doc that stopped them chilly: Mast.

They did not comprehend it, however they might quickly lose their baby.

This is a narrative about how one U.S. Marine turned fiercely decided to deliver house an Afghan struggle 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 baby, unbeknownst to the Afghan couple elevating her 7,000 miles away.

The little woman, now 3 1/2 years outdated, is on the centre of a high-stakes tangle of at the least 4 court docket instances. The Afghan couple, determined to get her again, has sued Joshua and his spouse Stephanie Mast. But the Masts insist they’re her authorized mother and father 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 Defense, 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} little one 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.

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

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

That was greater than a 12 months in the past. The Afghan couple hasn’t seen her since.

“After they took her, our tears by no means cease,” the lady instructed The Associated Press. “Right now, we’re simply useless our bodies. Our hearts are damaged. We haven’t any plans for a future with out her. Food has no style and sleep offers us no relaxation.”



The story of the baby unfolds in lots of of pages of authorized filings and paperwork obtained beneath the Freedom of Information 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 identification out of issues for his or her family members again in Afghanistan, and so they 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 say the Afghan couple are “not her lawful mother and father,” and Mast’s lawyer solid doubt on whether or not the Afghans have been even associated to the baby.

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

The baby’s identification has been saved non-public, listed solely as Baby L or Baby Doe. The Afghan couple had given the baby an Afghan title; the Masts gave her an American one.

Originally from Florida, Joshua Mast married his spouse Stephanie and attended Liberty University, an evangelical Christian faculty in Lynchburg, Virginia. He graduated in 2008, and acquired his legislation diploma there in 2014.

In 2019, they have been dwelling 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 Center for Law and Military Operations. The U.S. Marines declined to remark publicly, together with different federal officers.

That September in 2019 was one of the deadliest months of the complete 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 accessible, however in court docket paperwork Mast claims that categorised experiences present the U.S. authorities “despatched helicopters full of particular operators to seize or kill” a overseas fighter. Mast mentioned that relatively than give up, a person detonated a suicide vest; 5 of his six youngsters 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 say the baby’s mother and father have been truly farmers, unaffiliated with any terrorist group. And they described the occasion as a tragedy that left two harmless civilians and 5 of their youngsters useless.

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

She was about 2 months outdated.

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



The baby was rushed to a navy hospital, the place she was positioned within the care of the Defense Department.

The International Committee of the Red Cross instructed AP that they started looking for her household with the Afghan authorities, usually a plodding course of in rural components of the nation the place record-keeping is scant. At first, they did not even know the baby’s title.

Meanwhile, 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 keeping with displays filed in court docket. He mentioned his colleagues within the navy tried to speak to President Donald Trump concerning the baby throughout a Thanksgiving go to to Bagram Airfield. Mast additionally mentioned he made 4 requests over two weeks to then-White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, asking for assist to medically evacuate the baby “to be handled in a protected surroundings.”

The Masts have been represented by Joshua’s brother Richard Mast, an lawyer with the conservative Christian authorized group Liberty Counsel, which says it’s not concerned on this case. None of the Masts responded to repeated requests for interviews.

In emails to navy officers, Mast alleged that Pence instructed the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to “make each effort” to get her to the United States. Mast signed his emails with a Bible verse: “`Live for an Audience of one, for we should all seem earlier than the judgment seat of Christ.”

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

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

“I used to be conscious that it will not be clean crusing forward, however that simply made me extra decided to do the correct factor,” the State Department official mentioned.

About six weeks after the baby was rescued, the U.S. Embassy known as for a gathering, attended by representatives of the Red Cross, the Afghan authorities and the American navy, together with Mast. The State Department wished to verify everybody understood its place: Under worldwide humanitarian legislation, the U.S. was obliged to do every little thing potential to reunite the baby along with her subsequent of kin.

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

The American idea of adoption does not even exist in Afghanistan. Under Islamic legislation, a toddler’s bloodline can’t be severed and their heritage is sacred. Instead of adoption, a guardianship system known as kafala permits Muslims to soak up 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 Department acknowledges 14 American adoptions from Afghanistan over the previous decade, none previously two years.

Yet 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 Department official mentioned. Motley wrote that she was representing an unnamed involved American citizen who wished to undertake this baby. 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 baby, and diplomats met with a navy basic, the official mentioned.

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

But he wasn’t prepared to surrender.



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 Domestic Relations Court, describing the baby as a “stateless minor recovered off the battlefield.” In early November 2019, a choose granted them authorized custody. The title of this choose just isn’t publicly accessible as a result of juvenile information are sealed in Virginia.

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

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 keeping with a listening to transcript. The waiver by no means arrived.

In an electronic mail to AP, Ghani’s former deputy chief of employees Suhrob Ahmad mentioned there’s “no document of this alleged assertion of waiver of Afghan jurisdiction.” Ahmad mentioned he and the pinnacle of the Administrative Office of the President don’t keep in mind any such request going via the court docket system as required.

The U.S. Embassy heard that Mast was granted custody. Military attorneys assured them that the Marine was simply making ready in case Afghanistan waived jurisdiction, however wouldn’t intrude with the seek for the baby’s household, in keeping with the State Department official.

Yet all alongside they deliberate to undertake the baby, in keeping with information obtained from the state of Virginia beneath a Freedom of Information Act request. Richard Mast wrote the Attorney General’s workplace in November 2019 that the Masts “will file for adoption as quickly as statutorily potential.”

In the meantime, Joshua Mast enrolled the baby within the Defense Department well being care system, made an appointment at a U.S. International Adoption Clinic and requested to have her evacuated.

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

In late 2019, Afghan officers instructed the U.S. Embassy that the baby’s paternal uncle had been recognized, and he determined his son and daughter-in-law have been finest suited to take her, in keeping with court docket information. They have been younger, educated newlyweds with no youngsters 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 college, 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. They had married for love, in contrast to many Afghans in organized marriages.

Mast expressed doubts concerning the newly-found uncle, describing him in court docket information as “an nameless individual of unknown nationality” and claiming that turning the baby over to him was “inherently harmful.” He requested the Red 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 might be made a toddler soldier or a suicide bomber, bought into intercourse trafficking, hit in a U.S. navy strike, or stoned for being a woman.

But 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 baby over, in keeping with the State Department official. But on February 26, 2020, the Masts realized that the U.S. was making ready to place the baby, now practically 8 months outdated, on a airplane early the next morning to hitch her household in one other Afghan metropolis.

The Masts, represented by Richard Mast, sued the secretaries of Defense 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 baby’s “lawful everlasting authorized guardians.”

Within hours, 4 federal attorneys — two from the Justice Department and two from the U.S. Attorney’s Office — have been on the cellphone, and Richard Mast was in Federal Judge Norman Moon’s workplace.

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

But the Justice Department attorneys mentioned they’d no proper to mandate how the Afghan authorities vets the household, and that the Red Cross — which has reunited family members in struggle zones for greater than a century — had confirmed it was executed correctly. Further, 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.

Judge Moon requested Richard Mast: “Your shopper just isn’t asking to undertake the kid?”

“No sir,” Mast responded. “He needs to get her medical remedy within the United States.”

Justice Department attorneys argued that the United States should meet its worldwide obligations. Attorney Alexander Haas put it merely: Taking one other nation’s citizen to the United States “would have doubtlessly profound implications on our navy and overseas affairs pursuits.”

Judge Moon dominated towards the Masts, and the baby stayed in Afghanistan.

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

“We did not assume 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.”



As the months handed in her new house in Afghanistan, the woman beloved getting henna painted on her fingers and dressing up in new garments, the Afghan couple mentioned. She all the time 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 as a result of of the unimaginable tragedy she’d already suffered.

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

Meanwhile, Mast continued to fret that the kid was “in an objectively harmful scenario,” 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 remedy within the U.S, Motley mentioned in court docket information.

Motley contacted the Afghan household in March 2020, a couple of week after the baby was positioned in her new house. Motley is called as a defendant of their lawsuit, however her lawyer, Michael Hoernlein, instructed AP the claims towards her are “meritless.” In court docket paperwork, Motley’s attorneys describe her function as skilled and above-board, and requested that the claims towards 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 instances, gave a TED Talk and wrote a ebook.

Over the course of a 12 months, Motley known as for updates concerning the little one and sometimes requested for images. In July, across the baby’s first birthday, the couple despatched Motley a snapshot of the kid in swim trunks, smiling and splashing in a wading pool.

At the identical time, the Masts’ adoption case was nonetheless winding via 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 cut-off date an orphaned, undocumented, stateless minor,” in keeping with a federal lawsuit. Fluvanna County Circuit Court Presiding Judge Richard E. Moore didn’t reply to repeated requests for readability on how the instances progressed.

International adoption attorneys have been baffled.

“If you might have family members there who’re saying, `no, no, no, we wish our daughter, we wish our little woman,’ it is over,” mentioned Irene Steffas, an adoption and immigration lawyer. “There is not any approach the U.S. goes to get right into a match with one other nation in terms of a toddler that is a citizen of that nation.”

Karen Law, a Virginia lawyer who focuses on worldwide adoption, mentioned state legislation requires an accredited company to go to 3 times over six months and compile a report earlier than an adoption might be finalized. The little one should be current for the visits — however this baby was 1000’s of miles away.

On July 10, 2021, across the baby’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 instructed the Afghan couple that except they despatched the kid to the United States for medical care, she may “be blind, mind broken, and/or completely bodily disabled.”

But the Afghan man now elevating her, who had labored within the medical area, didn’t assume her burn scars, a leg harm and mysterious allergic reactions amounted to a life-altering situation in the way in which Mast described. The couple declined sending the baby to the United States.

The lady was pregnant, and anxious concerning the danger of such an extended flight. They mentioned they requested Mast: Could they take the baby to Pakistan or India for remedy as an alternative?

The reply was no, their lawsuit says. The conversations continued for months. Osmani, the translator, vouched for the Masts and described them as sort and reliable, in keeping with 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.”



In late summer time 2021, the Taliban seized energy in Afghanistan. Mast mentioned he contacted the household to deliver the baby 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 family members of Osmani, the translator, in keeping with court docket information. They characterised the Afghan couple as an escort for a “U.S. navy dependent” — the baby.

In an electronic 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 little one.”

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

“If anybody asks to speak about your paperwork, present them this textual content: I’m Major Joshua Mast, USMC. I’m a Judge Advocate…” Mast texted them detailed instructions for tips on how to take care of 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 they’d met in individual.

In Germany, the Masts visited the Afghan household’s room 3 times to attempt to get the baby to journey individually with them, “insisting that it might be simpler for the toddler to enter the United States that approach,” the Afghan couple recalled of their lawsuit. They refused to let the woman out of their sight.

When the Afghans lastly landed within the United States, 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 clean her hair. Mast instructed the Afghans to “preserve quiet” about having his title on her passport, their lawsuit alleges, so it might be simpler to get medical care.

The Afghan couple requested to be taken to Fort Pickett Army National Guard base, a location specified by Mast, in keeping with the lawsuit. Thousands of Afghan refugees have been quickly housed there.

Soon after, they mentioned, troopers got here to their room and instructed them they have been transferring. A wierd lady sat within the again of the van subsequent to a automotive seat, in keeping with court docket information, and the baby fussed as she buckled her in.

The van pulled as much as a constructing they did not 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 did no good. Mast took the baby to his automotive, the place his spouse was ready, the lawsuit says.

They had misplaced her.

In their closely redacted response to the lawsuit, the Masts acknowledge they “took custody” of the kid; they mentioned their adoption order was legitimate and so they did nothing flawed.

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 preventing to get her again, “from the evils of life beneath the Taliban.”

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

“But the enjoying area was not degree,” their lawyer, Ashai, instructed the AP. The couple “have been compelled to navigate a posh and complicated system in another country by which they’d simply arrived, after having survived the best trauma of their lives.”

Meanwhile, the couple says in court docket paperwork, Osmani warned them to not contact a lawyer or the authorities, and urged that Mast would possibly give them the baby again in the event that they dealt straight with him.

And so that they tried to take care of contact with Mast. They have been additionally scared of him. If he may abduct their little one in broad daylight, they anxious he would possibly harm them too, their attorneys wrote in authorized filings.

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

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

His spouse gave beginning to a woman on October 1, 2021. The younger mom’s grief turned overwhelming. A month later, she thought of suicide and was hospitalized.

Soon the couple sought authorized assist; by December 2021, the Afghan couple had requested the Fluvanna choose to reverse the adoption. But these proceedings, virtually one 12 months in, have been opaque and gradual.

On Feb. 27, 2022, when the Afghan baby was 2 1/2 years outdated, the Masts traveled to the Mennonite Christian Assembly in Fredericksburg, Ohio, to share their pleasure throughout a particular church service. In a video promoting the occasion known as “Walking in Faith,” the pastor apologized to congregants that it might not be on-line, as a result of the Marine would share “very confidential, categorised info.”

“Unforeseen 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 instructed the AP that the Masts had requested the service be confidential, and he did not need to betray their belief by disclosing any particulars.

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



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

Earlier this month, Joshua Mast arrived on the Fluvanna County courthouse alongside together 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 Judge Moore. The AP was not allowed contained in the courtroom. Court clerk Tristana Treadway refused to offer even the docket quantity, saying she may “neither affirm nor deny” the case existed in any respect.

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

Mast stays an lively obligation Marine, and has since been promoted to main. He now lives together with his household in North Carolina. The Afghan toddler has been with them for greater than a 12 months.

In Texas, the Afghan couple continues to grieve the loss of the kid. The baby the lady gave beginning to shortly after arriving within the U.S. simply turned 1. The younger mom had deliberate to boost the women as sisters.

But they’ve by no means met.

“There is nothing to rejoice with out her. There is not any happiness right here,” the Afghan man mentioned. “We are counting the moments and days till she’s going to come house.”


Retired Associated 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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