KABUL — Afghan officials issued an arrest warrant Sunday for former national soccer chief Keramuddin Keram amid an investigation into allegations that he sexually abused members of the women’s national soccer team.
The warrant came a day after FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, fined Keram about $1 million and banned him for life. At least five players said he assaulted and harassed 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 captained the team before fleeing Afghanistan in 2016 and seeking asylum in Denmark, said she learned about the alleged culture of abuse when several players confided in her at a training camp in Jordan last year.
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 said several of the players were abused by Afghan soccer officials while in Jordan for the training she organized.
Human Rights Watch reported in February that at least 20 women had come forward with accusations against Keram and other officials.
Keram has denied the allegations. He told the Guardian in December that “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 that it “vigorously rejects” the allegations, which it called “groundless.”
Keram, who had not 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. The case is an unusual one for the body. Most of the organization’s high-profile misconduct cases in recent years have been related to corruption, not sexual misconduct.
Afghanistan’s attorney general’s office 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. Hafizullah Wali Rahimi, Afghanistan’s top sports official, said the allegations of widespread sexual abuse have made some Afghan parents still more cautious about allowing their daughters to join sports teams.
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 Keram’s warrant was announced. “Women should be protected.”
The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, John R. Bass, tweeted that the United States applauded FIFA’s decision.
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,” he said.
The scandal in Afghanistan is just one on the minds of female soccer players this week as the world’s best teams compete 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, called it “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 difficult 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,” Kohestani said, speaking by telephone from the United States, where she lives. “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 sponsors including Hummel, a Dutch sportswear brand.
After all that women did to build up the Afghan national team, Kohestani said, it was painful to see that 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.”
Salahuddin Sayed contributed to this report.