Raees Khudaidad's name in his home province of Khost in southeastern Afghanistan elicits polarized reactions.
Most of his compatriots see him as a notorious murderer, robber and kidnapper. But the thousands of local residents who attended the 42-year-old man’s funeral following his execution in February are testament to his local reputation as a hero who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.
Charged with 21 crimes against the Afghan state, Khudaidad and his accomplice Habib Istalif were sentenced to public hanging after a speedy trial earlier this year, marking only the second case in which capital punishment was carried out under the current regime. The National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, referred to the pair as "the most dangerous criminals of the country’s modern history."
Reportedly the holder of multiple foreign passports, Khudaidad’s reputation as a ruthless mafia boss contradicts witness accounts of his piety, generosity and monastic lifestyle. His former cellmates admire his disdain for authorities and stories of high-profile heists.
Meanwhile, Khudaidad's relatives in his home province of Khost extol him as a Robin Hood figure deserving of martyr status.
Pointing to the opacity of Khudaidad's trial, they suggest his execution was a ploy to cover up other crimes committed under the watch of former President Hamid Karzai’s administration.
"Raees Khudaidad only targeted people who stole poor people's property. He never kidnapped poor or economically disadvantaged people," said Nazem Badshah, 65, a close relative of Khudaidad's from the Dakhee area of Khost Province.
"About nine years ago, I saw with my own eyes that he was giving away money to poor people through his friends in Bagrami district of Kabul Province," Badshah added.
Originally from Warzhali, a rural area in Khost Province's Tani district, Khudaidad and his family moved to Kabul after the Soviet invasion, settling in a rented house in Khair Khana district.
When the Afghan mujahedin took over and Burhanuddin Rabbani came to power, Khudaidad became commander of a security checkpoint in Kabul’s Qlae Nazar area, where he eventually formed a dangerous gang comprising men from Panjshir and other northern provinces.
The group continued to operate during the Rabbani presidency and the subsequent Taliban regime, gaining further clout with the installment of the Westernbacked Karzai government.
Sources close to Khudaidad say support from highranking Karzai officials allowed the group to carry out some of its riskiest missions, such as stealing precious jewels from the residence of Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak. Other groups then used his gang’s notoriety to commit their own high-level crimes.
"Raees Khudaidad and Habib Istalif were only names, very much like the Haqqani network these days," a close friend of Khudaidad's said on condition of anonymity.
"The group does not exist, but others do things in their name. Raees Khudaidad was only a name misused by high-ranking government officials in the Karzai administration and the intelligence agency."
Family members also point out that Khudaidad's low-key lifestyle and their own poverty contradicts the official narrative.
"How can it be possible that someone’s family lives in abject poverty when, according to the NDS, he stole $150 million from major international banks, holds various passports and is involved in dozens of homicides?" Khudaidad’s uncle Zarmudin asked.
"We knew Raees Khudaidad very closely," said Hajji Katee Tanai, a respected tribal elder of the Tani tribe in Khost Province.
"He belonged to a poor family. He had three brothers and four children. One of his brothers managed a sports club in Kabul, and his other brothers were working as day laborers. How can it be possible for such a person to carry out crimes of such magnitude?”
Khost elders criticize current President Ashraf Ghani for his administration's handling of Khudaidad's case. When Zarmudin learned about Khudaidad's arrest and death sentence, he and about 120 elders from across Khost Province requested a meeting with Ghani to ask for a public retrial.
"Despite our 10 days of effort, Ghani would not agree to meet with us," Zarmudin recalled.
He and other family members point to the circumstances of Khudaidad's hastily arranged closed trial by a primary court, to which he was secretly transported. In an open letter to Ghani, Khudaidad's mother also alleges her son was denied access to a lawyer and forced to give false confessions and sign blank documents.
“If the issue was to prove his major crimes, why was he not given the chance to reveal the names of his accomplices?" Zarmudin asked.
Still, there are those in Khost who view the execution as a warning to other criminals. "Their punishment should serve as a lesson for those who threaten people's life and property," says Karim, a resident of Matoon in Khost city.
"Criminals should be brought to justice,” added Sadiq Afghan, a Khost civic activist. "It does not matter if he is our relative or if he is a stranger."