The government increased law enforcement efforts, including on bacha bazi; however, official complicity in the recruitment and use of child soldiers continued with impunity. The 2017 Law to Combat Crimes of Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking, including bacha bazi. The law prescribed penalties between five and eight years’ imprisonment. These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those for other serious crimes. Aggravating factors increased the maximum sentence to between 10 and 15 years’ and the imposition of the death penalty if exploitation for armed fighting resulted in the victim’s death. Article 510 of the 2018 criminal code criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking, including bacha bazi. Article 511 prescribed penalties of five to 10 years’ imprisonment for trafficking offenses involving adult male victims and 10 to 16 years’ imprisonment if the victim was a woman or child or exploited in bacha bazi. These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those for other serious crimes, such as rape. Article 512 outlined aggravating factors and increased penalties to 16 to 20 years’ imprisonment for sex trafficking or forced armed fighting and between 20 to 30 years’ imprisonment if the victim who was forced to fight died while subjected to trafficking. While the 2018 penal code also specifically criminalized more crimes related to bacha bazi, some of which would constitute trafficking offenses, it also prescribed lower penalties for certain acts constituting bacha bazi than those prescribed under Article 510. Most of these penalties were not sufficiently stringent, nor commensurate with the penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The government also used the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) to prosecute and convict sex traffickers.
Despite growing political will to hold perpetrators accountable, the government’s lack of resources and a deteriorating security situation diminished enforcement of anti-trafficking laws. The judiciary remained underfunded, understaffed, undertrained, and in some cases ineffective, and judicial officials were often intimidated by perpetrators or corrupt officials. In urban areas, if judges or prosecutors did not assess that a clearly defined legal statute applied or they were unaware of the statutory law, then they enforced customary law, which often resulted in outcomes that discriminated against women. While the EVAW law expressly prohibited mediation, and other Afghan laws neither permitted nor prescribed mediation in criminal cases, police and judges often referred trafficking victims to mediation. In some areas, anti-government forces such as the Taliban instituted their own customary justice practices, including for trafficking victims. In some cases involving sexual abuse, the Taliban executed both perpetrator and victim.
As in the previous year, ministries provided limited data, which made it difficult to compare to previous years. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) reported referring 237 cases of bacha bazi to the Attorney General’s Office (AGO), with 185 of these cases under police investigation at the end of the reporting period, compared with the investigation of 16 suspects in 14 trafficking-related cases in 2019. The government separately reported additional statistics on combined human trafficking and migrant smuggling efforts. It reported investigating 50 suspects and initiating prosecution of an unknown number of cases. It was unclear how many of these investigations and prosecutions were for human trafficking.
The AGO initiated prosecution of 19 suspects in four bacha bazi-related cases. In one of the cases, the government charged four suspects in connection to a network of child sexual abuse, including bacha bazi, uncovered in November 2019 within the Logar public high school system. One of the four suspects was a high school headmaster and the first government employee to face charges of child sexual assault related to the case. The judiciary convicted seven Afghan National Police (ANP) officers of bacha bazi, murder, rape, assault, and sodomy in one case and separately, two Afghan National Army (ANA) officers for bacha bazi during the reporting period. These were the first known cases where the government charged uniformed police officers directly with bacha bazi and did not solely charge the trafficker with the related crimes. Courts sentenced one ANP officer to death, two received 30-year prison sentences, and the remaining four received 24-year prison sentences. Courts sentenced the two ANA officers to 18 months’ imprisonment. In addition, the court convicted nine individuals of child sexual assault for their involvement in the 2019 Logar bacha bazi case involving the sexual abuse of 165 male students. Courts sentenced the perpetrators to between five and 22 years’ imprisonment. According to the High Commission, at the close of the reporting period, 47 trafficking cases were currently with the primary court, 35 with the appellate court, and 76 with the supreme court. Thirteen cases involving bacha bazi were with the primary court and eight with the appellate court. Courts convicted seven traffickers under the anti-trafficking and EVAW laws in the previous reporting period.
While the government took action to investigate, prosecute, and convict government officials allegedly complicit in bacha bazi in the above cases, disregard for the rule of law and official complicity in trafficking, especially bacha bazi, remained widespread. Afghan security forces, in particular the ANP and Afghan Local Police (ALP—disbanded in late 2020), continued to recruit boys for bacha bazi. Local authorities acknowledged that some police, especially checkpoint commanders, recruited boys for sex trafficking in bacha bazi. An international organization reported Afghan security forces or pro-government militias perpetrated seven cases of sexual violence and rape, including possible bacha bazi, during the reporting period; this included three cases by the ANP, one by the ALP, one by the ANA, one by the Afghan National Army-Territorial Force, and one by a pro-government armed group. The government reported prosecution and conviction of the officials involved in one ANP and one ANA case and is investigating the remaining cases. Additionally, the international organization noted the reported cases did not reflect the full extent of the problem given the obstacles victims and witnesses faced in reporting, as well as the organization’s challenges in verifying these cases due to the sensitivities around victim stigmatization and gender and concerns for victim and witness protection. Some Afghan security forces and pro-government militias—some of whom may have received direct financial support from the government—recruited boys specifically for use in bacha bazi. In some instances, ANA officials reportedly used promises of food and money to entice boys into bacha bazi.
Afghan security forces, including the ANA, ANP, and the now-disbanded ALP, continued to recruit and use children in combat and non-combat roles. MOI and the Ministry of Defense (MOD) continued to rely on past directives they had issued to prevent the recruitment and sexual abuse of children. An international organization stated the government made notable progress on combating the recruitment and use of child soldiers through its Child Protection Units (CPUs) in ANP recruitment centers. Beginning in 2018 the government established one CPU in each of the 34 provinces; all 34 remained active during the reporting period. According to the Office of the President, MOD prevented the recruitment of more than 5,050 children into Afghan national defense and security forces during the year. However, in 2020, an international organization reported the ALP and pro-government armed groups jointly recruited and used eight children, the ANP recruited and used five, the Afghan National Army-Territorial Force recruited and used four, and pro-government armed groups recruited and used seven children. This is similar to previous years, though experts stressed recruitment and use of child soldiers remained underreported, often due to safety concerns. The government has never prosecuted any military or police official for recruitment or use of child soldiers, though it did investigate some claims. Some officials accepted bribes to produce identity documents for boys stating they were at least 18 years old. In addition, media reported the ANP and pro-government militias forced some civilians to defend isolated outposts in the north of country against insurgents; untrained civilians arrived at these locations often through the fraudulent promise of work and were left isolated with limited supplies for months at a time.
Widespread official complicity in human trafficking continued outside of the Afghan security forces, often with impunity. Observers noted perpetrators of bacha bazi often paid bribes to, or had relationships with, law enforcement, prosecutors, or judges who protected them from prosecution. In the past, a public health official who conducted forensic exams for criminal cases reported state prosecutors pressured him not to report confirmed evidence of abuse, including in cases of bacha bazi. In 2019, activists spent six months investigating and interviewing hundreds of boys ages 14-20 in Logar province across three high schools and found evidence that at least 165 were sexually abused by teachers, principals, vice principals, fellow students, and at least one local law enforcement official. Some youth were required to have sex in exchange for passing grades. Officials dismissed one school manager accused of bacha bazi from his job but later gave him a job at Logar’s provincial Education Department. After an international outcry, several government bodies—including the AGO, Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), Ministry of Education (MOE), Parliament, and the Logar provincial government—investigated the allegations, but the quality and thoroughness of the investigations varied, and the results were inconsistent with victim reports. The AGO investigation identified 20 suspected perpetrators, 10 of whom the government had arrested by the end of the reporting period, including a school headmaster, resulting in nine convictions. Separately, in previous reporting periods, female sex trafficking victims alleged prosecutors and judicial officials sought sexual favors in exchange for continuing investigations and prosecutions of their cases.
Law enforcement and judicial officials continued to have a limited understanding of trafficking. While the 2017 law used separate terms and definitions for trafficking and smuggling, Dari, the most widely spoken language in Afghanistan, historically used the same word for human trafficking and migrant smuggling, and officials conflated the two crimes. The High Commission developed and implemented awareness classes for an unknown number of officials and the government, with funding from a foreign government, also developed its first Countering Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants Training Manual with the help of an international organization. The National Directorate of Security (NDS) Human Rights Department conducted 89 seminars on child protection and the prevention of trafficking, including bacha bazi, in 2020. The President directed the government to improve the quantity and quality of trafficking prosecutions, which subsequently led government legal experts to provide a three-day training on trafficking laws to provincial judicial officials. Separately and in partnership with a foreign government, the AGO, Supreme Court, and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) provided training to approximately 300 prosecutors, judges, and legal aid attorneys on sections of the Afghan penal code covering bacha bazi from October 2019 through November 2020. MOD’s Human Rights Unit provided awareness training for 2,925 officers, noncommissioned officers, and soldiers on human rights, the Child Rights Protection Law, and the prevention of child soldiers. MOI continued to operate dedicated trafficking/smuggling units in each of the 34 provinces and in Kabul, with two officers in each province. NDS, the Afghan Border Police (ABP), and a Kabul-based INTERPOL unit also had mandates to address human trafficking. The agencies did not have a clear delineation of responsibilities, and therefore, NDS investigated most human trafficking cases. While ABP was the best positioned to identify and investigate trafficking at the borders and some of its officers received anti-trafficking training during the reporting period, many officials still lacked anti-trafficking training and the force as a whole lacked the resources to identify and investigate trafficking. Officials acknowledged personnel, resources, and knowledge of trafficking remained inadequate across all units. Law enforcement lacked cooperation with neighboring countries, which impeded investigation of transnational trafficking cases.