Afghanistan: Male judges and prosecutors left behind in ‘forgotten crisis’

Ruth Green Tuesday 17 January 2023

The Taliban’s increasingly draconian policies in Afghanistan, the return to Sharia law and attacks on women’s rights have rightly drawn the world’s attention. However, almost 18 months after the Taliban seized power, there are growing calls to ensure that Afghan men, including those working in the legal profession, are also safe from harm.

Imogen Canavan, a legal consultant, has worked closely with the IBA and the International Association of Women Judges to evacuate vulnerable Afghans since August 2021. As part of these efforts, hundreds of female judges deemed to be at risk were evacuated alongside their families and have since been resettled in Australia, Canada, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand and the UK.

While Canavan says these efforts are to be hugely commended, she’s increasingly concerned for the safety of male judges in Afghanistan, as all judges under the former government have been fired. ‘One of the focuses for me as a consequence of this work has been the male judges, because I feel like they’re a much bigger group,’ she says. ‘There are about 200 female judges, but there are about 2,000 male judges. What we see in terms of security risks for them is mostly kidnappings of the eldest son. They usually want the judge to present themselves to the Taliban in exchange for the son. Then often we anticipate that this would result in a significant probability of torture or even of killing. There's extortion as well.’

Safiya was an Afghan national working in the UK last August when the Taliban seized Kabul. Though she had no previous links to the legal profession, she, like Canavan, found herself fully immersed in the evacuation efforts. Safiya has watched in horror at how women have been steadily removed from nearly all areas of public life in Afghanistan, but says many male judges could be even more at risk than their female counterparts. ‘A lot of very well-known male judges were left behind,’ she says. ‘That’s the thing that upset me the most because all these men at the top of their field were getting in touch with me, but there was no evacuation mechanism for them. They're the ones that are most in need now.’

Canavan says it was also a mistake that prosecutors weren’t deemed at risk enough to be evacuated by governments and humanitarian organisations in the wake of the Taliban takeover. ‘They are being attacked with knives and guns,’ she says. ‘Like legal academics, this group has not been prioritised, has been left behind and nobody's thinking about them.’

Prosecutors are being attacked with knives and guns

Imogen Canavan
Legal Consultant

Global Insight spoke to Ali, a male Afghan prosecutor who was fortunate enough to be evacuated to Pakistan in January 2022 and resettled in Germany in June. He believes that the international community has a moral obligation to help male prosecutors who remain in Afghanistan. ‘We are being persecuted and being labelled as having assisted the international community to promote certain principles,’ he says. ‘That affiliation and collaborative work with the international community is what caused us to be exposed to horrible experiences and risk of persecution. And now they need to advocate for human rights in the country because there's a dire need for that.’

While most countries have stopped taking in vulnerable Afghans, a handful continued to offer them much-needed refuge as 2022 drew to a close. In October, Germany launched a new programme to admit 1,000 at-risk Afghans and their family members per month and has been inundated with applications.

Canada also brought in several policies, including a programme that allows groups of five Canadian citizens or permanent residents in Canada to provide private sponsorship to Afghan refugees who have already left Afghanistan without the need to submit a refugee status determination document. However, the Canadian government said the programme had already reached its capacity of 3,000 Afghan refugees within six weeks of its launch.

Alex Stojicevic, Refugee Officer of the IBA Immigration and Nationality Law Committee and managing partner of MKS Lawyers in Vancouver, says the popularity of such programmes underlines why countries must do more to support vulnerable Afghans. ‘The simple answer is that there is a need,’ he says. ‘The human rights situation in Afghanistan is horrific and people need settlement support.’

But Stojicevic admits the options are limited for those still in Afghanistan. ‘I don't know what more can be done in terms of supporting those displaced in-country,’ he says. ‘You would need military intervention in order to guarantee security to help such people, so I don't know how realistic that would be unless countries adopted an emergency evacuation visa model, such as what the IBA has been advocating for since 2019.’

In December, the Taliban sparked further outcry after it banned women from attending university and working for both local and international aid agencies. Mark Ellis, IBA Executive Director, says such moves are exacerbating the country’s humanitarian crisis. ‘Until the Taliban government, under the pressure from the international community, tempers its ways and allows international civil society, including the IBA, to help them to have a more engaging presence, then we're going to be limited in what we can do,’ he says.

Ellis says it’s crucial that the international legal community continues to support its counterparts still working in-country. ‘It's a forgotten crisis,’ he says. ‘The best we can do right now is to continue to try to engage with our colleagues that are still in Afghanistan to find ways that we can support them.’

Image credit: Anton.Matushchak/AdobeStock.com

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