Growing urgency to evacuate female judges from Afghanistan

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistThursday 7 October 2021

Over a month has passed since the last international troops left Afghanistan. The frantic scenes of civilians begging to be evacuated have dissipated, but there remains a sense of urgency for the female judges forced into hiding and fearing for their lives.

‘Now living for us is a time of torture,’ one female judge tells Global Insight over a crackly line from Kabul. ‘Here we are spending days and nights in fear. We are living like prisoners and so are our children. They cannot go out and they are living in fear.’

Nura fled her home in the east of the country last month with her husband and two young children after the Taliban freed thousands of prisoners and began door-to-door searches for judges that had sentenced their members. Like other female judges, her bank account has been frozen and she’s been forced into hiding with relatives in Kabul while she waits anxiously for news on an evacuation flight.

Speaking to the media has already put her life at risk and forced her to relocate several times. Global Insight has changed her name for security reasons. With the assistance of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) and other organisations, she and her family were recently relocated to a safe house.

Her story is not unique, says Marzia Babakarkhail, who previously worked as a family court judge in Afghanistan. Babakarkhail says judges outside of Kabul are particularly at risk of Taliban reprisals. ‘Judges working in the provinces are more in danger because villages are very small,’ she says. ‘Everybody knows your house and knows if it’s a judge's house.’ The Taliban also dictates that women cannot travel without a mahram – a male relative over the age of 16 – which is posing an additional challenge to efforts to evacuate the endangered women discretely.

Here we are spending days and nights in fear. We are living like prisoners

Female Afghan judge, Kabul

Babakarkhail knows the risks facing the judges all too well. After establishing a small shelter for divorced women in Afghanistan and a school for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, she says she was forced to flee to the UK in 2008 after the Taliban made two attempts on her life. She arrived with a single suitcase and not a word of English. She’s now a caseworker handling immigration cases for a local MP, though has latterly channelled all her efforts into campaigning to evacuate the more than 200 female judges still believed to be stranded in Afghanistan.

She voices frustration at the UK government, which in August said the judges had been included under its Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme. ARAP was established in April to assist current and former Afghan civilians employed by the UK government and was ramped up ahead of the 31 August withdrawal deadline. On 1 September, the foreign secretary said nine judges were among the 15,000 people evacuated under the scheme since 15 August.

A spokesperson for the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) says the department would ‘continue to do all we can to deliver on our obligation to get British nationals and eligible Afghans out of the country.’ A Home Office spokesperson confirmed that the new Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) would also prioritise ‘at risk’ groups such as women’s rights activists, prosecutors, judges and journalists.

But as the clock keeps ticking, there are concerns time is running out. Global Insight spoke to Runna, the UK-based sister of an Afghan Supreme Court justice who has been in hiding since the Taliban took control of Kabul on 15 August and was finally evacuated alongside their elderly mother at the end of September.

Like many Afghan households, the judge is the sole breadwinner and leaves behind 10 other dependents who were not permitted to accompany her. Their brother was already badly injured by the Taliban for concealing his sister’s location. Now the safety and financial security of the family members left behind – particularly young females – are at risk as the Taliban moves to restrict women’s rights in the country. ‘I don't know how else to explain it but as a humanitarian crisis because currently they're surviving on the littlest of things,’ says Runna. ‘The rest of the family is in danger. Young girls in this family who are supposed to be in high school and who are supposed to be going to university, have been banned from education.’

Afghanistan has lived under a ‘climate of fear’ of the Taliban for decades, says Guissou Jahangiri, Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Executive Director of Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA Foundation. She says the international community was still woefully unprepared for the devastating consequences of the US withdrawal. ‘We were prepared for all sorts of threats and had already curbed some of our activities, but we weren't expecting to be dealing with such a humongous crisis overnight.’

Jahangiri’s team has been working around the clock to bring many of Afghanistan’s most prominent human rights activists to safety. It’s already proved extremely dangerous for her colleagues to continue monitoring activities on the ground. She fears the worst if the Taliban follows through with its threats to impose a nationwide internet shutdown. ‘There was this great rumour that the Internet would be cut. I won't be surprised if it is finally. Then it will be total darkness and I don't know how we are going to reach people that are trapped.’

For those still fearing for their lives, the uncertainty and lack of clarity is unbearable, says Kyra Wigard, a legal fellow at Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA. ‘What is very loud right now is the silence,’ she says. ‘The silence of a very clear UN Security Council condemnation. The silence from many states saying they will not recognise the Taliban government. It’s that silence that creates a sort of calm in the international sphere that is so far from what is actually going on down on the ground.’

Despite the absence of a country representative, Afghanistan featured heavily during the recent UN General Assembly in New York. The UN is expected to vote next month on which of the competing delegations will represent Afghanistan going forward.

Baroness Helena Kennedy, Director of the IBA's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), says the UN must stand up for the rights of all Afghans: ‘The UN must be pressurised to insist that no money or recognition will be given to their governance of Afghanistan if people at risk are not allowed to leave. Steps should be taken to make exit possible. I am still receiving calls from people there in great anguish.’ As IBAHRI continues to play a pivotal role in the international legal communities’ efforts to airlift judges, lawyers and others, Kennedy urges that ‘this sensitive work goes on and needs everyone’s support.’

Image: PradeepGaurs C / Shutterstock.com

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