updated 8/11/2008 2:45:17 PM ET 2008-08-11T18:45:17

Ali Khan braved death threats and public scorn to out the powerful men he accuses of gang-raping his 12-year-old niece.

Now he says it is up to Afghanistan’s president to prove he can prosecute her assailants and their warlord protectors in the country’s north, where President Hamid Karzai’s government holds little sway.

Rape — a crime long hidden in Afghanistan by victims fearing a life of scorn — is getting a public airing in this conservative Islamic country. In recent weeks, several outraged families have appeared on nightly news shows, demanding justice while sharing heartbreaking stories of sexual assaults on teenage daughters.

Government officials say at least five rapes have been reported in the past four months, though they and women’s rights groups say any reported statistics likely fall far short of reality.

The Interior Ministry has announced a crackdown on sexual assault, one of the first times the government has acknowledged a problem long dealt with as privately as possible. On Sunday, President Hamid Karzai called for rapists to face “the country’s most severe punishment.”

Karzai promises punishment
After families appeared on TV, Karzai met with Khan and another man whose daughter was raped in Sari Pul. The president promised punishment as he “hugged my niece and said she was also his daughter and cried,” Khan said.

But it could prove a formidable task for Karzai, whose government has little influence outside the capital. In northern provinces like Sari Pul, warlords command private armies and well-connected criminals regularly bribe their way out of prison.

“Some of them (criminals) are taken to the jails, but because they belong to the commanders, they pay money and are set free,” said Parween Hakim of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.

One of the men accused of attacking Khan’s niece was convicted of rape a month ago and sentenced to nearly 20 years in jail. But Hakim said she has never seen an assailant serve more than six months.

Still, there are signs of progress. The government fired five top police officials in Sari Pul for negligence in the two cases.

Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said officials are taking action because the five rape reports must mean other assaults are being committed. But he calls the few public cases a hopeful sign.

“Families are trusting the security forces and reporting these incidents,” Bashary said.

Death threats
Khan said his niece was raped when five men broke into the family home two months ago. They beat his sister and her husband and forced themselves on the girl. The father remains hospitalized.

Khan says he’s received death threats since going public, and his sister and niece have not left a guarded Kabul hotel room — provided as a safe house by the government — for two weeks.

The girl’s mother recognized two of their attackers as associates of a provincial lawmaker, Khan said.

The lawmaker’s son is one of those accused of involvement in the rape of Sayed Noorullah Jafery’s 13-year-old daughter in Sari Pul in February.

Both Khan and Jafery say they can identify the girls’ attackers, but that the powerful family is shielding the men.

Calls to numbers held by Paunda Khan, the lawmaker accused of protecting the attackers, went unanswered. The head of Sari Pul provincial council, Abdul Ghani, said Paunda Khan had done nothing to obstruct justice.

In both cases, police initially refused to take down the families’ accusations — a situation the U.N.’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, said is typical in a region where police are more likely to answer to warlords than to Kabul.

“It’s because of the impunity given to these warlords for such a long period of time,” Coomaraswamy said.

Shamed into fleeing the country
If the rapists continue to escape punishment, it could push a region to reconsider the liberties given to women since the fall of the Taliban regime. Even Khan suggested that the easing of Taliban-era restrictions that kept women at home might be making girls easier prey.

“These days all these young girls are going to school, and coming out of their houses. These criminals chase after them,” he said. “When these criminals come, they commit rape as well.”

Jafery says he’s lost confidence in the system because while the lawmaker’s son has been arrested, he is being tried as a juvenile after producing papers showing his age as 16. Jafery says the man is in his early 20s.

Another family that went public with a rape last year has since been shamed into fleeing the country, according to Hakim of the women’s rights group. And in another northern province, Kunduz, police say a man arrested for allegedly raping a 9-year-old girl escaped last week after three days in jail. He had not been tried.

But Khan says he will wait for Karzai. He had to talk his sister’s family out of collective suicide, persuading them to travel to Kabul to demand government action.

“This is like a revolt against the warlords by my family,” he said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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