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AP breaks stunning story of child caught in custody battle between Afghan couple, US Marine

This illustration depicts a baby being held, and an airplane leaving the Kabul, Afghanistan airport. An Afghan couple who arrived in the U.S. as refugees are suing a U.S. Marine and his wife for allegedly abducting their baby. (AP Illustration/Nat Castaneda)

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The story was nothing short of shocking: An Afghan baby, the only surviving member of her immediate family following an American attack on their home, was brought to the United States for medical treatment only to be taken from the Afghan couple who raised her as their own and — against the couple’s wishes — placed in the custody of a U.S. Marine and his wife.

AP investigative correspondents Juliet Linderman and Martha Mendoza, and enterprise writer Claire Galofaro broke the extraordinary story of the little girl, now 3 1/2 years old, caught between two families: the Afghan couple that raised her after the rest of her family was killed, and the U.S. Marine attorney they accuse of abducting her. Such a story would have been remarkable under any circumstances, but it was made even more so by the speed with which the AP reporters turned it around — less than two weeks.

Linderman,Mendoza and Galofaro pored through hundreds of pages of legal filings and obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act. They drew on the expertise of Kathy Gannon,former AP news director in the region,talking to officials in the Afghan government at the time the baby girl was evacuated from her homeland. They pushed relentlessly and repeatedly for interviews with everyone,including the Afghan couple and the U.S. Marine,Maj. Joshua Mast. Their persistence paid off in the case of the Afghan couple,whose lawyer finally relented,impressed by how much the AP knew. They also persevered despite strong opposition from the judge who had sealed the case and a court clerk who refused to provide even the docket number.

Despite the many obstacles and the need for attribution throughout,the journalists wove their reporting into a beautifully written, compelling narrative that reads like an international thriller. The Afghan couple’s lawyer told AP that a major national news organization had known about this story for months, so the quick turnaround was critical. The AP trio worked around the clock and succeeded in getting their story out first.

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In photo at left, a cross overlooks Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., in April 2015. Originally from Florida, Joshua Mast, who would be come a Marine Corps attorney, married his wife, Stephanie, and attended the evangelical Christian college. Documents show that Joshua Mast used his military status, appealed to high-ranking Trump administration officials and turned to small-town courts to adopt an Afghan baby baby, unbeknownst to the Afghan couple raising her 7,000 miles (11,000 kilometers) away. He considered it an act of Christian faith to save her. At right, a student reads the Quran at a madrassa in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 28, 2021. The American concept of adoption doesn’t exist in Afghanistan. Under Islamic law, a child’s bloodline cannot be severed and their heritage is sacred. Instead of adoption, a guardianship system called kafala allows Muslims to take in orphans and raise them as family, without relinquishing the child’s name or bloodline. – AP Photos / Steve Helber (left); Felipe Dana

Mary Rajkumar,deputy editor for international investigations,edited the piece. And with limited visuals available,Nat Castañeda,acting storytelling editor for global enterprise and investigations,worked closely with the reporting team and with photo editor Patick Sison,creating the striking illustration that led the presentation.

The team’s story earned a perfect score for reader engagement, was featured in Politico Playbook and trended on Twitter for two days.

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Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, wait to board a bus after arriving at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia, Aug. 27, 2021, as the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. – AP Photo / Jose Luis Magana

Readers reacted with anger,many asking how they could hold the government agencies involved responsible,and AP learned that the FBI has launched an investigation into the case. Reaction has also come from the State Department,the U.S. Marines and the Taliban,prompting a follow-up story currently in the works.

For intensive,lightning-fast work to put AP first on this deeply reported,deeply moving story,Linderman, Mendoza and Galofaro earn AP’s Best of the Week— First Winner honors.

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