Afghanistan’s hour of need
Image credit: Taliban soldiers stand in front of a sign at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 9, 2021. www.pictures.reuters.com
The Taliban takeover in August 2021 unleashed an unprecedented crisis. Global Insight speaks to those involved in the IBA’s efforts to support the beleaguered country and its legal profession.
When the Taliban toppled Kabul on 15 August 2021, the lives of all Afghans changed in an instant. The speed of the takeover took locals, international troops, aid workers and governments by surprise. As foreign nationals scrambled to board flights from Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport – renamed by the Taliban to Kabul International Airport in 2021 – it quickly became apparent that many Afghan civilians were already at risk.
On the same day, Taliban leaders released thousands of prisoners, including many with alleged links to Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Suddenly, hundreds of judges responsible for their convictions and imprisonment were plunged into grave danger. International airlines suspended all commercial flights in and out of Kabul. As the 31 August deadline for international troops to leave the country loomed large, there was a growing realisation that many vulnerable civilians stood no chance of being evacuated in time. Panic set in.
As desperate crowds gathered at the airport’s gates, foreign governments were grappling with the immense challenge of deciding which at-risk groups deserved the most assistance. All over the world, frantic phone calls, emails and WhatsApp messages were already pouring in thick and fast. The IBA quickly rallied to do what it could to support the country’s legal profession. These efforts were channelled into two main areas. The first was to assist with the evacuation of women judges, who were felt to be at particularly high risk of reprisals from the Taliban. The second was to establish an Afghan Bar in exile.
Governments must step up
Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the IBA, believes that civil society has rallied in the very best way to respond to the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan. ‘The IBA’s focus was on ensuring the safety of some of the most vulnerable individuals that were still in Afghanistan and for us that was the women judges and the leadership of the Afghan Independent Bar Association’, he says. ‘Civil society worked together to evacuate the women judges. The IBA, through the Human Rights Institute, played a major role in that, as did other players in society. It was really quite extraordinary to watch them work together and to be effective, whereas I thought some of the other government policy simply was not.’
As non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have become progressively overwhelmed by the ongoing requests for help, Ellis believes it’s now time for governments and the international community at large to step up their efforts and secure the country’s future. ‘As long as the Taliban is in power and as long as they have the authority to restrict any type of independence, particularly within the legal community directed at women, it remains a crisis situation’, he says. ‘This is where governments and the international community will have to play the major role in trying to temper these actions from the Taliban.’
As long as the Taliban is in power and as long as they have the authority to restrict any type of independence, particularly within the legal community directed at women, it remains a crisis situation
Executive Director, IBA
The offices of the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association (AIBA) were attacked during an extraordinary meeting of AIBA’s Leadership Council on 23 November 2021, sparking widespread fear throughout the profession. The IBA worked intensively to evacuate the AIBA’s leadership. Ellis credits IBA staff member Romana St. Matthew-Daniel for her endless leadership in this effort. Almost all members of the AIBA’s executive team have now been resettled in Canada, France and Germany, with their families. Three other families still await news in Pakistan of their resettlement.
Ellis recalls when the IBA, through the administrative leadership of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), played a role in setting up the AIBA in 2008 by creating significant funding. Although the future of Afghanistan’s legal community was suddenly in jeopardy, he says it soon became clear how the IBA could help support Afghanistan’s legal diaspora. ‘We felt it was important once the judges and the leadership of the Bar were evacuated that they had the opportunity to work together even outside Afghanistan’, he says. ‘I suggested we create a new Afghan bar association in exile. It's consistent with the work that the IBA did in creating the AIBA in Afghanistan. I thought it was natural that we help continue the work, although in a very different format. I think that will be one of our main legacies in our work in Afghanistan.’ Ellis is grateful to the Bars and law societies that donated a total of $30,000 to the IBA’s efforts to evacuate the AIBA’s executive board from Afghanistan. These include: the Law Society of Scotland; the Hong Kong Bar Association; the Faculty of Advocates (Scotland); the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and Tokyo Bar (individuals led by Kimitoshi Yabuki); the Law Society of Northern Ireland; the Lithuania Bar Association; the New Zealand Bar Association; the Taipei Bar Association; the Law Society of Ireland; the Malaysian Bar Council and the Zimbabwe Law Society. Individual donations were also gratefully received from Dr Hans-Michael Giesen, Zbigniew Bakalarczyk and the Defensor Iuris Bar Association in Poland and Dato' Sunil Abraham.
The initiative to establish a new Afghan bar association in exile came to fruition earlier this year in Brussels, with the AIBA being hosted by the French-speaking Brussels Bar. Ellis urges the international legal community to continue to support their counterparts still in Afghanistan. ‘Unfortunately, it still leaves thousands in the legal community still in Afghanistan who are under the new Taliban rule’, says Ellis. ‘That will be a much more difficult and challenging response from the international community. I think we should continue to look for ways of helping those still in Afghanistan.’
Afghan citizens, who have been evacuated from Kabul, disembark from a U.S Air Force transport plane as they arrive at Naval Station (NAVSTA) Rota Air Base in Rota, southern Spain, August 31, 2021. REUTERS/Jon Nazca
Baroness Helena Kennedy KC, Director of the IBAHRI, was in the US when she first started receiving desperate phone calls from lawyers and judges she knew in Afghanistan. Kennedy had worked with the legal profession in Afghanistan for more than a decade during her tenure as Co-Chair of the IBAHRI’s Council. Over this period, the country embraced key legislative and societal changes to rebuild Afghanistan’s legal system and cement women’s role in the country’s legal profession. In 2009, a year after the IBA had established the AIBA, Afghanistan adopted a law on eliminating violence against women and the erstwhile president, Hamid Karzai, established a designated commission on the elimination of sexual abuse of children and women.
Kennedy worked with the UN and lawyers in Afghanistan to advocate for Afghan law schools to open their doors to female students and for women to sit as judges in the country’s courts. Her engagement with Afghanistan’s legal profession continued when she took over the helm of the IBAHRI in 2018, but she says it was the shooting in January 2021 of two female Supreme Court judges – one of them a close friend – that really brought home to her the genuine risks facing the country’s judiciary, particularly its female members.
‘Women judges in Afghanistan have always been subjected to terrible abuse, threats to their lives and threats to their family’, she tells Global Insight. ‘That had always been the practice, so it wasn't unfamiliar to them. What was shocking was that two of their Supreme Court judges were killed. The message to all the other women in the courts was very clear: they were not welcome and this would follow a return of the Taliban and of extremist groups.’
When the Taliban released what were widely considered some of the country’s most serious and hardened criminals in August 2021, Kennedy says it was like putting ‘a bullseye on the back’ of all the country’s female judges. ‘They were on kill lists, they were threatened and received phone calls to their homes’, she says. ‘I remember the very first woman judge that phoned me and said her brother had gone to a market to get some food because she was staying indoors. He was threatened by someone who said: “Tell your sister her days are numbered”. The women judges were all in absolute abject terror.’
The judges have shown remarkable resilience, ambition and tenacity. They are a very admirable group who we have no doubt will make a significant contribution
UK judge and member of the Afghan Support Committee of the IAWJ
Emily Foale, an IBAHRI project manager, was still recovering from Covid-19 at home in London when Kennedy received that first cry for help from Afghanistan. Dozens of phone calls and emails followed. ‘People were asking for letters of support that they could send to embassies’, says Foale. ‘Then we started working with some of the female judges to see if there was a way that we could get them out.’
When Kennedy began ringing around her contacts in the UK government, NGOs and across the international legal community, Imogen Canavan, a legal consultant, had only recently returned to work from sick leave when she heard that the Taliban had taken Kabul.
Canavan, a former IBAHRI intern, previously taught international law to female lawyers practising in Afghanistan. But she never imagined she’d one day be involved in assisting the legal profession to flee the country.
Although Canavan was working mostly autonomously in the UK, she soon began to connect with the IBAHRI and other organisations like German civil society initiative Kabul Luftbrücke, which was also working around the clock to evacuate vulnerable Afghans. ‘These [civilians] were people that we knew on a daily basis – it was very personal’, she says. ‘Even before Kabul fell, we were in daily contact with everyone. It was obvious that the Taliban were beginning to circle in and we were incredibly scared. I would say there was a lot of feeling of panic and this feeling of crisis and hysteria.’
Canavan spent hours on the phone listening to distraught civilians, all the while trying to follow the news and keep up with developments as they unfolded. ‘As the evacuation flights started, it then became a mad scramble to gather everyone's data’, she says. ‘We also began to be flooded – and this is something which continues to this day – with emails and WhatsApp messages from people we didn't even know.’
Working alongside colleagues in Germany and contacts on the ground in Afghanistan, she drew up a list of around 2,000 people that were seeking immediate evacuation. As the pleas for help grew increasingly desperate, Canavan says the prospect of evacuating this number of people seemed an impossible undertaking.
Every hour mattered
As US troops prepared to withdraw from Afghanistan by the 31 August deadline, there was a growing sense of unease across the international legal community over what the future might hold for both the legal profession and the rule of law in the country.
Anisa Dhanji, a UK judge and part of the seven-member Afghan Support Committee of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), had been heavily involved in supporting Afghan female judges since the attack on the Supreme Court judges in early 2021.
Like many of her colleagues, Dhanji forged a strong friendship over this period with a female judge in Afghanistan as part of the IAWJ’s partnering scheme with members of the Afghan judiciary. In Dhanji’s case, her partner judge was Tayeba Parsa, who sat on the Court of Appeal in Kabul Province and was the Communications Officer of the Afghan Women Judges Association (AWJA).
Dhanji spoke regularly with Parsa on the phone to provide moral support and to keep abreast of the day-to-day situation on the ground. After the mass release of prisoners in August, she says one conversation with Parsa made her blood run cold. ‘I remember being on the phone with her and at the time she was in a car surrounded by men and she did not know whether they were Taliban or Afghan soldiers who had cast off their uniforms’, says Dhanji. ‘She had gone to court that day and made her way home after hearing that the Taliban had taken over Kabul. She was stoic throughout all of this until I told her that the prisons, even Pul-e-Charkhi, Afghanistan’s notorious and largest prison housing the most dangerous criminals and terrorists, had been emptied. That was the one and only time that she completely broke down. It was the reality that the people who they had imprisoned were now free. All the judges’ personal details had been made public, so they were at very immediate risk.’
For women, studying was a window of hope. I see the bomb explosions at schools and I worry so much about them
Former Communications Officer of the AWJA
As the AWJA’s de facto spokeswoman, Parsa felt compelled to speak out to international media outlets to tell the world about what was happening in her country. Thousands of kilometres away in Poland, Anna Kruszewska had just returned from a holiday in Italy when she spotted television footage of Parsa speaking to a news crew amid the terrible scenes unfolding in Afghanistan.
Kruszewska, a partner specialising in intellectual property and media rights at Hasik Rheims & Partners in Warsaw, had no prior connections to Afghanistan, but says the chilling coverage stopped her in her tracks. ‘A judge from Afghanistan was being interviewed and said that when the Taliban takes over Afghanistan she will get killed’, she tells Global Insight. ‘It struck me as it was something that I would never expect to see in the 21st century. Since I'm a media lawyer, I know people, who know people, who know people and I learnt that there was a Polish rescue mission organised by the Polish government led by a particular politician. Through friends of friends, I reached out to him and he was kind enough to pick up the phone. I said there was a group of female judges there and I know they had been evacuating people and maybe they could evacuate Afghan female judges as well. He, to my surprise, didn't say immediately no. He said “Ok, but you have to make it happen”.’
And so she did. On top of her day job and working closely with the IAWJ, Kruszewska acted as the intermediary connecting a group of Afghan judges with Polish soldiers on the ground in Kabul. It was an intense experience, she says. ‘It was extremely difficult and I barely ate for a week or two because I was afraid to leave and get myself some food in case I missed some important call and missed the Polish soldiers’, she says.
Kruszewska worked alongside members of the IAWJ to prepare the manifests and get the necessary information to the Polish military. ‘The IAWJ had people working on this and were collecting the judges’ data’, she says. ‘Starting in Australia and finishing in LA, around the clock there was someone watching the situation and being in touch with the judges. As you can imagine every hour mattered.’
After navigating the Taliban-controlled checkpoints to the airport, the judges had to mark their hands or carry placards with the names of major Polish cities to help the country’s troops pick them out of the heaving crowds at the airport gates.
The Polish military evacuation mission ended on 25 August. Hundreds of Afghans, Poles and other nationalities were evacuated by military aircraft to Uzbekistan and then onwards on civilian flights to Georgia and finally to Warsaw. Thanks to Kruszewska and the IAWJ’s efforts, 67 people – including Parsa and eight other judges, three prosecutors and their family members – all made it safely to Poland.
Evacuation after Abbey Gate
They were just in the nick of time. The following day, as thousands crowded around Kabul's airport hoping to get onto flights, a blast at the airport’s Abbey Gate killed more than 170 Afghan civilians, 13 US military personnel and other foreign nationals. Islamic State has since claimed responsibility for the attack.
Canavan says the attack created mass hysteria and was another blow to the efforts by her and so many others to get vulnerable Afghans out of the country. ‘Every week we had all the warnings that Abbey Gate might happen and effectively everything was cancelled’, she says. ‘Abbey Gate then did happen. We’re very glad that [the evacuees] didn't go to the airport, but I had to call each and every single one of the people on my list and tell them: “It’s a no-go, unpack your bags”. That was horrible.’
Up to that point, Kennedy, who is also a member of the UK House of Lords, had been doing everything in her power to convince UK government officials to evacuate judges on military airlifts to the UK. However, the bomb on 26 August and subsequent withdrawal of international troops on 31 August ended any possibility of further military evacuations taking place.
This realisation spurred Kennedy, Foale and IBAHRI programme lawyer Ewelina Ochab into action. Working off a list of vulnerable female judges, lawyers and prosecutors provided by a contact at the Law Society of England and Wales, they worked day and night to find safe houses for judges and their families at risk, collate identity documentation and source funding to charter evacuation flights. ‘All of a sudden it became quite an immense task’, says Foale. ‘We didn't really intend to set out to do this as we're quite a small team, but once it became clear that we had the opportunity, I think we felt like we just we had to do it.’
Kennedy had already been in discussions with other organisations about how to charter planes out of the country, but it soon became clear that the costs they were facing were colossal. ‘I ended up going around with a begging bowl to a lot of foundations and wealthy philanthropists and persuaded them to part with large sums of money’, she says. ‘In the end it cost us £3.5 million for the whole exercise.’
Despite the lengths Kennedy had gone to secure the funding, that wasn’t the end of the story. As with all those involved in the evacuation efforts that Global Insight spoke to, the path to establish safe houses, clear flight manifests and final onward destinations for the judges was beset by obstacles. ‘There were so many roadblocks along the way’, says Foale. ‘For a while they stopped accepting anyone who didn't have passports, which was a huge issue, but at that point we felt like we'd committed to it and we were so determined to see it through. Then I remember the day when we woke up and heard the news that Qatar was not accepting any more flights. We had all these people waiting in a safe house in Mazar-i-Sharif with nowhere for them to go to anymore, but we had a flight ready to go and the funding on the way for the flight.’
With three planes at the ready, the next question was: where would the Afghan judges go? Doha, which had become the main base for Afghan refugees in the immediate aftermath of the US withdrawal, was no longer an option.
After more phone calls and emails, Kennedy managed to make contact with the President of Greece, Katerina Sakellaropoulou – herself a former judge – who convinced Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to give the judges safe passage and temporary accommodation for the first flight, which arrived in Athens on 30 September with around 110 Afghan civilians on board.
But with two more flights full of anxious families still with no final destination, Kennedy had no choice but to fly to Greece herself to convince the country’s immigration minister to allow the other flights to land in Athens. ‘To have all those lives in one’s hands was a terrible responsibility’, says Kennedy. ‘I had nowhere to land the flights. Each flight cost $800,000. I didn’t sleep at night. Greece had a refugee problem of its own in camps like Lesbos. I had to fly to Greece and petition the immigration minister personally, which was no mean feat. He wanted no more asylum seekers and no cost to Greece. We had nowhere to land the second two planes. I was desperate.’
After weeks of tense discussions, the Greek authorities finally agreed to let the IBAHRI charter the remaining flights to Athens. A second flight carrying around 380 people left Afghanistan in late October and was split into two flights for the second leg of the journey to Greece. In total, 103 female judges, lawyers and MPs were evacuated alongside their families, bringing almost 500 people to Athens.
This wasn’t the end of the story, however. Although those that travelled on the first flight chartered by the IBAHRI were able to move straight into government-owned apartments and were provided with social and financial support, such assistance was not available for passengers on the second and third flights. In fact, the planes were only allowed to land on the condition that the IBAHRI would cover the costs for all 380 passengers – or 79 families – on board while they were in Greece.
Once again Kennedy was able to source additional funding. This time it was British author and philanthropist JK Rowling that came to their rescue. Rowling, alongside several other key donors, gave enough money to cover the substantial costs – from accommodation to living expenses for basics like food and nappies – for the remaining 380 people. Three of the women went on to give birth in Athens shortly afterwards, underlining the immense responsibility placed on both Kennedy and her team’s shoulders to safeguard the lives of not only female judges, but also their families and children.
Looking back, Kennedy still can’t quite believe that they managed to pull it off. ‘Within a month of the military evacuations stopping we were the first group apart from US-based Christian organisations to charter any flights out of Afghanistan’, she says. ‘These women were in absolute despair. It was the most incredible initiative in all of the IBAHRI’s history. It really was the IBAHRI’s Schindler’s List moment.’
Long road to resettlement
Kennedy organised for Foale to fly out to Greece at the end of October to meet the female judges and their families and work alongside aid workers to meet their needs as new refugees.
After months of message exchanges and phone calls, finally meeting the judges face to face was an emotional experience. ‘It was really joyous to meet all these people, but obviously by the end of the week I did see, understandably, a big shift in that the reality of living as a refugee had started to set in’, says Foale. ‘I think that still hit people as a shock.’ Khatera Saeedi, a former journalist and humanitarian worker in Afghanistan, echoes this sentiment. She arrived in Athens on one of the IBAHRI’s flights in late October 2021 alongside judges, prosecutors, human rights activists, defence lawyers and politicians.
Like other women who had spent so long building careers in Afghanistan, suddenly Saeedi says people felt they’d been left adrift in Athens. ‘Losing everything suddenly is not easy’, she tells Global Insight. ‘It was not easy to cope with all these changes. The expectations were really different. We were already dealing with very serious anxiety and trauma. It was not easy to believe and accept what we had gone through.’
I believe that they were in a terrible position and maybe even the worst position I can imagine as a lawyer and as a woman. That’s why we should take care of them
Hasik Rheims & Partners in Warsaw
Prior to leaving Afghanistan, Saeedi was offered a top position at UN Women in Kabul. Yet, like other refugees arriving in safe havens like Greece, she was unable to work for at least six months until her registration with the Greek authorities was complete.
Although she tried to make the most of the intervening period doing voluntary work for local NGOs supporting refugees, she admits it was a disconcerting experience. ‘When we arrived in Greece the facilities and support were maybe not something we were expecting’, she says candidly. ‘We didn't know what was going to happen. The families still didn't know their final destination.’
Securing somewhere for evacuees to resettle was a pressing issue: the judges were only permitted to enter and stay in Athens temporarily on the condition that they would settle in a third country. Having already battled for several months to get the judges to safety in Greece, Kennedy says it was ‘hell’ trying to gain assurances from foreign governments for the families to resettle. ‘It was shocking that countries did not open their arms’, she says. ‘I had to use every senior contact I had in every country where people were eventually settled, from the former President of Ireland to the Prime Minister of Iceland.’
She also called on the expertise of top immigration specialists, including Anne O’Donoghue, Principal Lawyer and Managing Director of Immigration Solutions Lawyers in Sydney and Vice Chair for Diversity and Inclusion at the IBA’s Global Employment Institute.
O’Donoghue had already been approached in September by Neil Fergus, Chief Executive Officer of Intelligent Risks and former head of security for the Sydney Olympic Games, who had been tasked with managing the security around Australia’s efforts to evacuate vulnerable Afghans. She and her team’s pro bono work contributed to the successful evacuation of more than 50 Afghans, including athletes and their families.
Knowing there was only a short window to apply and process visas from the judges arriving in Greece, O’Donoghue didn’t waste any time. Rather than risk the judges and their families joining a lengthy waiting list for protection visas, she took the initiative to apply for emergency S449 – Temporary Humanitarian Stay – visas. ‘Everything came together at the right time’, says O’Donoghue. ‘We only needed one thing to go wrong and it would’ve upset everything.’
By 1 December, O’Donoghue had secured 90 S449 visas for 20 Afghan female judges, as well as lawyers, prosecutors and activists. Seventeen judges in total came to Australia, plus up to 50 of their family members. Ten of the judges were secured by Immigration Solutions Lawyers and arrived in Sydney and Melbourne on 24 January 2022, where they were given instant access to English language lessons and Australia’s public healthcare system.
By 30 August 2022, O’Donoghue’s team had obtained permanent residency for the ten judges and their families – 48 visas in total – and racked up close to 300 hours of pro bono work during this period.
O’Donoghue’s instrumental role in securing safe passage for the judges and their families to Australia earned her a coveted spot on Australasian Lawyer’s list of Elite Women for 2022. She’s humble about what she has achieved though. ‘Helena Kennedy was inspirational in this’, she says. ‘There’s no one else I’d have done this for and no one else I could get this outcome for. It was challenging emotionally, a real learning experience and a huge team effort. We’ve only 15 members of staff, so we’re not like a large law firm that has the resources of a large pro bono team.’
O’Donoghue’s team continues to support and monitor the evacuees to help them resettle and establish new lives in Australia. Some, she says, have adapted quickly, while others require more support to cope with challenging family circumstances.
Apart from Australia, of the almost 500 people that the IBAHRI evacuated from Afghanistan to Athens, the vast majority – which include Saeedi and her family – have now resettled in Canada. The rest have found refuge in Germany, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand and the UK. A handful of families still await news of their final destinations.
Fawzia Amini was one of more than a dozen female Afghan judges that the IBAHRI evacuated to the UK in 2021 alongside her husband and their four daughters. A former senior appeal court judge and head of the Elimination of Violence Against Women Court in Kabul Province, Amini once presided over some of the country’s most serious cases, including murder, sexual assault, forced marriages and beatings.
I lost all of my rights and everything in Afghanistan because when the Taliban came they destroyed everything
Former senior appeal court judge
Like many other Afghan evacuees to the UK, Amini and her family had an extended stay in hotel accommodation in London while the government found them permanent housing. They finally moved into their own home in November 2022.
She says she’s determined to restart her life in the UK. ‘I want to rebuild my career and my professional life which I lost’, she says. ‘I lost all of my rights and everything in Afghanistan because when the Taliban came they destroyed everything.’
Amini jokes that she and her husband – himself a former prosecutor in Afghanistan – are now ‘classmates’, learning English and other skills together during the day while their daughters go to school.
She admits the transition has been harder for some judges, particularly those still waiting for permanent housing. ‘We’re very happy because we have good facilities and good opportunities. We are studying, doing driving courses, English courses and also IT courses, but some families need to have houses urgently because they have diabetes or maybe another serious sickness.’
Commenting on the accommodation situation for Afghan refugees in the UK, a Home Office spokesperson said: ‘The UK has made one of the largest commitments to support Afghanistan of any country and, so far, we have brought more than 22,800 vulnerable Afghans to safety.’
By the end of 2022, the UK had provided 7,572 Afghans with permanent housing. A further 779 people had been matched to a home and were waiting to move in. A Home Office spokesperson added: ‘This does not include families who have made their own accommodation arrangements. While hotels do not provide a long-term solution, they do offer adequate space, secure and clean accommodation.’
It’s not been easy for judges, even in countries like Germany, which has what is widely regarded as a generous and well-established integration system to help asylum seekers resettle in German society.
The first group of Afghan female judges arrived in Germany in December 2021. Karen Bilda, a judge based in Hamburg and the German representative of the IAWJ, says the first issue arose when they were evacuated to different parts of the country as per the federal government’s policy to distribute refugees proportionally across the country according to tax revenues and population.
‘Of course, all the Afghan judges wanted to come to Hamburg, Frankfurt or Berlin’, says Bilda, ‘but it didn't work out that way and so the group is spread around Germany. Soon we started to offer a project to get them together online’.
Although Bilda commends the German government’s policy of providing judges and other asylum seekers with dedicated integration courses, comprising 600 hours of lessons on German language, history and culture, she says many judges soon came up against one of the Western world’s foremost challenges to female career progression: childcare.
‘The problem is that a large percentage of the judges have small children who need childcare’, says Bilda. ‘Availability of childcare in Germany is a problem like it is all over the Western world. The result is the judges’ husbands go to the integration courses and the women judges stay at home taking care of the children and not learning. We said this is something we can't accept, so we started these online language courses and other courses and set up an online legal roundtable to keep them together as a group.’
Afghans on the frontline
Although many people involved in the evacuation efforts were from other nations, Global Insight spoke to two Afghans who risked their lives to rescue their compatriots.
Safiya, an Afghan national working in the UK, who doesn’t want to be identified for security reasons, had no previous links to the legal profession. However, through family connections, she soon found herself at the epicentre of efforts by the IBAHRI and other organisations to evacuate hundreds of vulnerable Afghans.
Torn between concern for the Afghan nationals she was trying to help and fearful of reprisals on her own family members in-country, Safiya says her mental health really suffered during this period. ‘It was not only the stress from the people who were being evacuated, it was also the stress of hiding who you are and hiding who your family is and having another number so that it doesn’t get traced back to you and doesn’t put members of your family who are still there in danger’, she says.
Despite the intensity of this period and the risks to her own safety, Safiya succeeded in helping the IBAHRI and other organisations evacuate hundreds of Afghans, including many female politicians and their families.
Following the Taliban takeover, Sami, a Master of Laws (LLM) graduate, started working for Kabul Luftbrücke, a German civil society initiative established by Civilfleet-Support in August 2021 to evacuate vulnerable Afghans. ‘From being a volunteer, I became the main operator and the person who has to make the judgement calls of every evacuation operation – how it should happen, when it should happen and who should do what – I was the bridge between the ground operatives’, he says.
Sami worked alongside teams in Afghanistan, Germany and Pakistan to evacuate more than 2,700 civilians. Now residing outside of Afghanistan, he’s still working with the group to try and get a further 10,000 people that have been accepted by Germany out of the country.
Sami studied law at one of Afghanistan’s top universities. He hopes one day he will be able to pick up where he left off and prove his generation’s commitment to forging a new Afghanistan built on the rule of law. ‘I really am keen to go forward with my journey as a lawyer, practise law and become a symbol for my fellow Afghans’, he says. ‘There are a lot of Afghan diaspora kids who will be looking at careers in the future. I want to be that example for them and also for myself.’
As for Safiya, she’s relocated with her family to Pakistan and thrown herself into new projects there, including helping establish a beautician training school to give Afghan women – many of them doctors or women’s rights advocates who are unable to work in Pakistan – a new sense of purpose.
‘In Islamabad, you have a lot of ASAF [Afghan Special Forces] widows with small children, and they're living in horrendous circumstances with no money’, she says. ‘The course is free and funded. They come, they learn and they get a free, warm lunch. Then at the end of the course when they graduate, they’ve got work. I am putting all my energy into this now. This is how I am helping my fellow Afghans.’
Issues with accommodation, childcare and jobs aside, the reality of life as a refugee has clearly taken some adjustment for many Afghan women and men accustomed to working at the top of their professions, many of whom may have aspired to resettling in certain countries, either for family reasons, education needs or language preferences.
This has caused frustration in some host countries, but Dhanji says there’s optimism that many judges will be able to rebuild their careers and lives abroad. ‘These people are part of a career judiciary, so they start off their professional career as a judge, in contrast to the UK, for example, so on the whole, they're younger, they have energy, time and every possibility of being able to re-establish themselves’, she says. ‘We've got a visiting scholar at Oxford, for example, and she’s not by any means the only one who is doing well. We’ve got one judge who is starting with a City firm on an apprenticeship that will lead eventually to qualification as a solicitor.’
Dhanji acknowledges that the trauma of leaving Afghanistan and starting a new life in a foreign country has taken its toll on some of the judges. ‘Some of them have been understandably traumatised’, she says. ‘We and others are arranging for trauma counselling for them. They are also consumed with worry about those they have left behind. Of course, for those in the UK, sorting accommodation has also taken a longer period of time in some cases, so that has a bearing on their ability to feel settled. But they are taking language classes and their kids are at school. The judges have shown remarkable resilience, ambition and tenacity. They are a very admirable group who we have no doubt will make a significant contribution.’
By December 2022, the IAWJ had helped around 125 judges reach final destination countries including Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, the UK and the US. Dhanji says the IAWJ continues to support around 60 female judges still left in Afghanistan, as well as a number of judges in temporary locations across the world waiting to move to third countries.
For some, like Dhanji’s Afghan partner judge Parsa, life has changed completely since leaving Afghanistan. As the Taliban closed in on Kabul, she had no choice but to abandon aspirations of her dream wedding, hastily organise a marriage ceremony and say goodbye to family members before boarding an evacuation flight. Parsa, her husband and father were some of the lucky few that were airlifted by Polish troops and finally arrived in Warsaw in late August 2021.
Since then, she and her husband have moved into an apartment, started studying and welcomed a baby girl to their family. Although immensely grateful for the help they’ve received, Parsa says she’s struggled to adjust to their new life and navigate how to bring up a newborn with health issues in a country where she doesn’t speak the language. ‘It’s been very difficult for us’, she tells Global Insight over Zoom from her home in Poland. ‘I really loved my job as a judge. We had worked hard to achieve everything. We’ve lost everything. We’ve lost our house. I worked for 16 years. We had done nothing wrong.’
Parsa says she still has nightmares about the Taliban and looks visibly distressed when asked about those left behind. ‘For women, studying was a window of hope’, she says. ‘I see the bomb explosions at schools and I worry so much about them. I thought at first that I would not plan to stay outside of Afghanistan forever. I still think we will go back. At this time, I think we should work to the capacity that we can and one day we will be back there with more knowledge and we should work for our society and should not forget Afghanistan.’
Being torn between gratitude for their newfound safety, and guilt and dismay at who and what they’ve left behind is a common feeling among refugees.
Ali was working as a prosecutor in Afghanistan’s Attorney-General’s office when the Taliban seized Kabul. As soon as the Afghan government collapsed, it became abundantly clear that as a government employee, his life was in danger.
However, unlike female judges, he says prosecutors – particularly male ones – weren’t automatically prioritised by foreign governments for evacuation despite the obvious risks to their safety. Finally, with the assistance of Canavan, Kabul Luftbrücke and others, Ali and his family fled to Pakistan in the January after the takeover and resettled in Germany in June 2022.
When he arrived, he says his emotions were mixed. ‘Leaving the country and coming to Germany and being welcomed with smiling faces was an experience that made me feel really grateful that on one hand I survived and I was safe’, he told Global Insight over Zoom with the help of an interpreter. ‘On the other hand, I'm understanding deep inside that we have lost this country that we worked for and the values that we cherish for a long time. I'm still going through that process of not just physical integration, but also mental integration and sense of loss.’
Since Taliban leaders enforced full Sharia law in November 2022, there have been daily reports of prosecutors, lawyers and judges being persecuted in Afghanistan. Ali believes the international community must not lose sight of what’s happening in his native country. ‘We were abandoned while we were the ones at the frontline of ensuring justice’, he says. ‘Now my former colleagues, families and certain categories of people there are being forced to leave their homes, leave their villages, leave their cities and there are people being persecuted. There’s a need for serious attention towards Afghanistan and those who are left behind right now.’
Sami, an Afghan civilian working for Kabul Luftbrücke, says large swathes of Afghan society – not just women – are still in grave danger (see box: Afghans on the frontline). ‘Everyone gets their version of persecution and suppression depending on their race, depending on their gender, depending on how they look, depending on their past’, he says. ‘There’s no category of people who would not be vulnerable to this suppressive and brutal regime.’
The forgotten crisis
Since the Taliban took power in August 2021, Afghanistan’s economy has nosedived, development aid and assets continue to be frozen and the UN warns that more than six million people are at risk of serious famine.
Women have continued to be steadily removed from nearly all areas of public life. The progressively restrictive measures imposed on the daily lives of women and the continued targeting of religious minorities has provoked global outcry. Yet the harsh reality is that the war in Ukraine and a multitude of other humanitarian and economic crises worldwide continue to distract the world from the horrors of what is going on in Afghanistan.
Germany is one of the few countries still actively accepting Afghan refugees. In October 2022, the government announced it was launching a new programme to admit 1,000 at-risk Afghans, and their family members, per month.
Bilda says the German government was soon inundated with a ‘tsunami’ of applications – a telling sign of both the hard-line nature of the current Taliban regime and the dearth of opportunities elsewhere for those at-risk Afghans left behind.
Canada has 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, in December, the Canadian government said the programme had already reached its capacity of 3,000 Afghan refugees.
Germany has pledged to take in around 38,000 vulnerable Afghan citizens by October 2025, in addition to the estimated 26,000 that have arrived in Germany since August 2021. These will include those believed to be at risk for their work on women’s and human rights, including judges, academics, journalists, scientists, political activists and those persecuted for their gender, sexual orientation or religion.
This could be particularly significant for judges and other legal professionals who belong to the Hazara community, a predominantly Shia Muslim ethnic group that has faced an increase in targeted attacks in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover. In August 2022, a UK parliamentary inquiry, which the IBAHRI contributed to, concluded that the Hazara were at serious risk of genocide and warned of further attacks against the community.
‘There are so many people who are still in need and there are still families that we're trying to help, but the options are so limited’, says Foale. ‘At the time that we were doing the evacuations, it felt like options were limited because there weren't that many countries stepping up to the plate to let people in, but now there are no options and the demand is so much bigger now. A lot of what is happening in Afghanistan to women and the attacks on religious minorities and on people at risk is going under the radar because there's no independent press anymore. That’s the reality of what's going on and in addition there’s the humanitarian crisis. I think the situation is worse than it ever was last year, but opportunities for people to help them are basically nil now.’
Bilda firmly believes that governments and the wider international community need to support female judges and other vulnerable individuals in Afghanistan regardless of other conflicts occurring around the world. ‘The risks in Afghanistan are very, very high and these women judges were so brave to condemn the Taliban’, she says. ‘They are such strong woman that I'm very happy to support them and I think they deserve to be supported even now in exile. The other more political aspect is safeguarding and we now have the chance to help this part of Afghan society and to preserve this group.’
Kruszewska agrees the world must not lose sight of the continued violations against women’s rights in the country. ‘We should care the most about the most vulnerable people’, she says. ‘Women in Afghanistan, not only judges, but generally, women are a very fragile group. They have suffered so much even before the Taliban took over the country. Some female judges were killed, all of them were threatened, all of them received death letters, all of them had to have bodyguards. That's not the way you should have your professional life. I believe that they were in a terrible position and maybe even the worst position I can imagine as a lawyer and as a woman. That’s why we should take care of them. And if we, as women, won't stand up for them, who will?’
On 20 December, the Taliban authorities announced they were imposing a ban on women attending universities and working for both local and international aid agencies. These moves sparked international uproar following earlier efforts by the Taliban regime to exclude girls from attending secondary schools in the country.
As the Taliban’s grip on Afghanistan intensifies, Dhanji says it’s vital to keep shining a light on what’s going on in the country. ‘There are many people who are continuing to speak up in every forum possible’, she says. ‘Is it going to be enough? It may be enough for some. It's not going to be enough for the vast majority. It's heartbreaking. I just don't think anybody has an answer for how you help the vast majority of people in the country who need help so badly.’
Kennedy says the ongoing situation from women’s rights in the country only serves to highlight the need for the international legal community to learn from the travails of last year’s frenzied evacuation efforts. ‘I learned important lessons from what was the hardest challenge I have ever had in my life’, she says. ‘Doing very grave cases never carried such responsibility. I think that when there are pointers that lawyers and judges are at risk, the IBA and bar associations should establish mentoring schemes. The UK and the US gave resettlement to those who already had links with professionals in country. We should learn from that. It’s about strengthening ties beyond borders.’
She also believes that an emergency evacuation visa model – a concept for which the IBA has been advocating for over a decade – will be vital to help those vulnerable Afghans still left behind. ‘The IBA has to be campaigning for special protections and emergency visas for lawyers at risk’, she says. ‘The Council of Europe is drafting a treaty to this end and countries who are outside the Council can also join. We can all play a part in providing solidarity with our colleagues in beleaguered parts of the world. It’s really one of our duties as lawyers.’
Ruth Green is the IBA Multimedia Journalist and can be contacted at email@example.com