Hunted by the men they jailed, Afghanistan's women judges seek escape

Published September 5, 2021
Relatives carry the body of a female judge shot dead by unknown gunmen in Kabul, Afghanistan January 17, 2021. — Reuters/File
Relatives carry the body of a female judge shot dead by unknown gunmen in Kabul, Afghanistan January 17, 2021. — Reuters/File

Safe in Europe after escaping from Kabul, an Afghan woman judge describes how she was hunted by men she had once jailed, now freed by the Taliban fighters who took over the country.

"Four or five Taliban members came and asked people in my house: 'Where is this woman judge?' These were people who I had put in jail," she told Reuters in an interview from an undisclosed location, asking not to be identified.

Afghanistan has around 250 women judges. A few were able to flee in recent weeks, but most were left behind and are still trying to get out, said international colleagues and activists who have formed networks working around the clock to help them escape.

The Taliban, who swept into power last month as the United States withdrew its troops, banned women from most work when they last ruled the country 20 years ago.

At a news conference shortly after they seized Kabul on August 15, a Taliban spokesman said women's rights would be protected in accordance with Islamic law. They would also be allowed to work across important sectors of society, he said.

Western powers have said they are prepared to engage with the Taliban but want to see action — not just promises — to safeguard human rights.

Women who work in justice have been high-profile targets before. Two women Supreme Court justices were shot dead by unidentified gunmen in January. A Taliban spokesman said at the time that the group was not involved.

Now, the Taliban have released prisoners across the country, which "really put the lives of women judges in danger", the Afghan judge said.

She has been in touch with colleagues back home: "Their messages are of fear and complete terror. They tell me if they do not get rescued their lives are in direct danger."

She escaped with the help of a collective of human rights volunteers and foreign colleagues at the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ).

In addition to the judges, there are around a thousand other women human rights defenders who could also be in the Taliban's crosshairs, said Horia Mosadiq, an Afghan human rights activist.

Freed prisoners "are calling with death threats to women judges, women prosecutors and women police officers, saying 'we will come after you,'" she said.

Fearful

British Justice Minister Robert Buckland said last week London had evacuated nine women judges and was working to provide safe passage for more of the "very vulnerable people".

"A lot of these judges were responsible for administering the rule of law and quite rightly they are fearful about the consequences that could now face them with the rise of the Taliban," he said.

But several human rights and legal activists involved in the effort to rescue women judges and rights defenders said Western countries did not make their evacuation enough of a priority in the chaos after Kabul fell.

"Governments had zero interest in evacuating people that were not their own nationals," said Sarah Kay, a Belfast-based human rights lawyer and member of the Atlas Women network of international lawyers.

She is working with an online group of volunteer veterans known as the "digital Dunkirk", named for the World War Two evacuation of British troops from Nazi-occupied France. It has helped hundreds of people escape with the help of chat groups and personal contacts.

At the IAWJ, a team of six foreign judges has also been coordinating information, lobbying governments and arranging evacuations.

"The responsibility that we bear is almost unbearable at the moment because we are one of the few people taking responsibility for this group," one of the effort's leaders, Patricia Whalen, an American judge who helped train Afghan female judges in a 10-year programme, told Reuters.

"I am furious about that. None of us should be in this position."

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