Taliban takeover threatens independence of Afghan Bar

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistThursday 9 December 2021

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated markedly since the Taliban toppled Kabul on 15 August, with lawyers and judges increasingly under threat. The legal profession came under a renewed attack 100 days later as Taliban forces stormed the offices of the country’s only bar association and detained and threatened its members and staff.

The attack on the offices of the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association (AIBA) took place during an extraordinary meeting of AIBA’s Leadership Council on 23 November. Najla Raheel, AIBA’s Vice-President, was attending the meeting virtually when the line went dead. She learned later that armed Taliban had entered the building, closed the offices, tore down nameplates and demanded her colleagues hand over all of AIBA’s goods and documents. ‘We built the Association with the blood of our hearts,’ she told Global Insight. ‘Now my colleagues, who include women, are in a very bad situation. The Taliban may harm them and their families at any moment.’

Raheel and AIBA President, Ruhullah Qarizada, are two of the AIBA Executive team that have managed to flee Afghanistan with their families. The Taliban announced that the AIBA will be merged with the Ministry of Justice and has appointed one of its own leaders as president, effectively stripping the association of any independence.

Taliban leaders have swiftly shut down local protests and press conferences condemning AIBA’s takeover. Qarizada is particularly concerned that the Taliban has access to AIBA’s bank account and its database, which contains details of more than 2,500 registered lawyers. ‘In this database everything is written about these lawyers – their family members, their addresses, everything,’ he says. ‘The Taliban should not access that database because it will put lawyers' lives in more danger.’

On 30 November the IBA sent a letter to UN Secretary General António Guterres highlighting its concerns over the Taliban’s seizure of AIBA’s database, bank account and its continued moves to compromise the independence of the country’s legal profession.

The AIBA was established in 2008 after the IBA raised considerable funds and worked jointly with local Afghan lawyers to create Afghanistan’s first bar association. ‘What they accomplished and their mission showcased the new Afghanistan at the time and particularly focused on the rule of law, an independent judiciary and women's rights,’ says Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the IBA. ‘When the Taliban took over, it was clear to me that the Afghan Independent Bar Association was not only in jeopardy, but it would probably cease to exist.’

The Taliban doesn't respect the rule of law, lawyers or people

Ruhullah Qarizada
President, Afghanistan Independent Bar Association

This prompted the IBA to embark on fundraising and evacuation efforts in conjunction with international partners to help AIBA’s leadership leave Kabul. $20,000 has been donated so far by several bar associations, but Ellis continues to push for IBA members to provide more financial support.

These efforts complement an intense campaign to evacuate Afghan female judges, lawyers and other vulnerable individuals at risk, including journalists and human rights defenders. Between 30 September and 24 October, the IBA team has worked with international and domestic partners to evacuate close to 500 people, including 103 women and their families, to Greece.

Many families remain in Greece awaiting destinations for onward travel. A number will receive safe passage to Iceland, Ireland, Australia, USA, New Zealand, the UK and Germany, but 70 families have still not been allocated a permanent residence. They have been housed in temporary accommodation thanks to a funding drive by the IBA's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) and generous donations from external partners such as Airbnb. IBAHRI continues to assist them in their resettlement process.

However, Helena Kennedy, Director of the IBAHRI, says the ongoing uncertainty is extremely challenging. ‘It’s so hard for them and it's taking its toll, physically and mentally,’ she says. ‘They’ve given everything up. They’ve had to leave large numbers of their families and friends behind and now they’re in a strange place. It’s so disruptive and they don’t know what the future holds.’

Ellis says the scale of the humanitarian efforts by civil society worldwide to evacuate vulnerable Afghans has been staggering, but governments need to step up. ‘It’s a disturbing reality that civil society has been placed in the position of trying to assist these most vulnerable people,’ he says. ‘I believe that States ultimately have that responsibility and they have failed by placing the responsibility onto civil society to evacuate individuals…and to provide support for these same individuals to resettle.’

As large swathes of the Afghan legal profession are relocated around the world, Ellis says the IBA could help maintain its commitment to the rule of law in the country by establishing a new Afghan bar association in exile. ‘I'm very, very proud of what the IBA has done since the fall of Kabul,’ he says. ‘I'm hoping that this final step of creating a bar association in exile could be a very strong strategic move to have a long-term impact for Afghanistan’s lawyers and judges to come together.’

Sternford Moyo, IBA President, supports the idea and calls upon the Afghan diaspora to keep holding the Taliban regime to account. ‘It is important that the AIBA be maintained instead of allowing it to completely collapse,’ he says. ‘Some of the gains made will be preserved and there will be no danger in having to start from scratch as was done when the current Bar Association was built. Furthermore, it is important for Bar leaders who are currently outside Afghanistan to maintain vigilance in that country and work in collaboration with one another as they expose to the world the excesses of the current regime.’

Image: Old Taliban tanks and guns on the outskirts of Kabul city, 10 August 2021. Trent Inness/Shutterstock.com

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