Afghan officials issued an arrest warrant Sunday for former Afghan soccer chief Keramuddin Keram, amid an investigation into allegations he had sexually abused members of the women's national soccer team.
The warrant came one day after FIFA, soccer's world governing body, banned Keram for life and fined him about $1 million, after at least five players said he assaulted and harasssed them between 2013 and 2018.
Keram "abused his position and sexually abused various female players, in violation of the FIFA Code of Ethics," the organization's independent ethics committee said in a statement soon after the Women's World Cup got underway in France.
Allegations against Keram, the former president of the Afghan Football Federation, became public late last year when Britain's Guardian newspaper reported that players from the women's national team had accused him and other top soccer officials in Afghanistan of rampant sexual abuse and bullying.
Khalida Popal, who previously captained the team but fled Afghanistan in 2016 and sought asylum in Denmark, learned about the alleged culture of abuse after she organized a training camp in Jordan last year and several players confided in her.
Popal told the Guardian that Keram had a bed in a room in his office that was accessible only with his fingerprint. "When players go in they can't get out without the fingerprint of the president," she told the newspaper. "While I was doing the investigation with these players I found out the huge extent of the abuse, sexually, mentally, physically, happening from the president himself."
When several players threatened to go to the media, Popal said, nine were kicked off the team and accused of being lesbians, in an apparent attempt to intimidate them into silence.
She also said that several of the players were abused by Afghan soccer officials while in Jordan for the training she organized. In February, Human Rights Watch reported that at least 20 women have come forward with accusations against Karem and other officials. At the time, Keram said "there has been no evidence or proof provided, only a number of unidentified voices, anonymous identities have made the allegations." Most of the accusers spoke to media outlets on the condition of anonymity, citing fears for their safety.
At the time, the Afghan Football Federation stood behind Keram, saying it "vigorously rejects" the allegations, which it called "groundless."
Keram, who has not yet been arrested, did not return a phone call Sunday.
FIFA suspended Keram in December while it carried out its investigation into the allegations, then extended the suspension in March before announcing he would be banned for life. The case is an unusual one for the body, where most high-profile misconduct cases in recent years have been related to corruption, not sexual misconduct.
Afghanistan's attorney general's office also suspended Keram and five other Afghan officials from the national federation in December. In addition to the FIFA investigation, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ordered a government probe, but findings have not yet been announced.
The scandal has roiled the athletic community in Afghanistan, where women have to overcome enormous social and religious obstacles to excel at sports. The allegations of widespread sexual abuse have made some Afghan parents even more cautious about allowing their daughters to join sports teams, said Hafizullah Wali Rahimi, Afghanistan's top sports official.
Rahimi welcomed the arrest warrant, saying that sports officials have been under "enormous pressure" since the allegations were made public.
"My duty is to defend all athletes all over the country," he said. "We support justice for those ladies if they have been subject to this harassment."
On Saturday, Popal tweeted that the FIFA ban was a "big win."
"Together we managed to clean the women's football team from 1 of the abuser," she wrote in English. "We are not done yet," she added after Afghan officials announced the warrant for his arrest. "Women should be protected."
The U.S. ambassador to Kabul, John R. Bass, tweeted that the United States applauded FIFA's decision, adding that Afghan "women must be supported and provided a safe work environment free from harassment or assault, whether their workplace is a government office, school, private business, or a football pitch."
The scandal in Afghanistan is just one on the minds of female soccer players this week as the world's best women's teams compete in the Women's World Cup in France. Allegations of abuse and harassment of female soccer players have surfaced in a number of countries, including Canada and Colombia.
Shamila Kohestani, the first-ever captain of the Afghan women's national soccer team, said in a phone call from the United States, where she now lives, that it is "heartbreaking" that officials allegedly took advantage of young women who had overcome all odds to play soccer. Sexual misconduct happens all over the world, she said, but in Afghanistan, it's especially hard to seek justice because the system has been stacked against female athletes for so long.
"We basically risk everything, our family's lives, doing something out of the ordinary, trying to make history in Afghanistan," she said. "And to have someone like that who has power, who has money, who is taking advantage of those women - it's something that is hard to swallow."
After the allegations emerged last year, the team lost some sponsors, including Hummel, a Dutch sportswear brand. Kohestani said it was painful to see that after all women did to build up the Afghan national team, it was alleged misconduct by men that damaged it.
"We worked really hard to be where we are," she said. "Now we have to start from zero."
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
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