Afghan lawyers are on the run from men who prosecuted them
By August, Farishta was an influential prosecutor who wielded her power over a cause. It persecuted criminals, Taliban fighters, corrupt bureaucrats and men who beat women and children.
Today the 27-year-old Farishta is hiding. Like a refugee on the run, she often changes location. For your safety we have changed your name.
Originally from the southeastern province of Paktia, Farishta was one of the Afghan women who succeeded professionally in the years following the defeat of the Taliban and challenged the country’s male-dominated and ultra-conservative society.
Five years ago, she became a prosecutor in the Afghan Prosecutor General’s Office under the previous administration. Her job included “prosecuting and convicting those who have committed rape, murder and domestic violence,” she told the BBC from a safe house in Afghanistan. It is a “challenging but satisfying job,” she said.
But as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan in the last few months before conquering the country, they freed prisoners along the way, including thousands of die-hard criminals and Islamist militants.
Among those released from the Taliban Crusades was Mohamad Gol, who was charged with planning suicide bombings. Farishta had meticulously gathered evidence against Gol and successfully prosecuted him and put him behind bars for a sentence of 20 years.
Days after the Taliban took over Kabul, Mohammed Gol called them, Farishta said. “He said he was coming after me to get revenge and that I had nowhere to hide.”
She has been on the road since then. Without a salary, it is difficult for her to make ends meet. Farishta and her colleagues say the Taliban are against women serving as prosecutors and judges and want to keep most women out of work, as they did during their rule until the late 1990s.
Women like Farishta have good reason to be afraid. In January, In Kabul. two judges of the Afghan Supreme Court were shot dead – Part of a wave of targeted killings widely attributed to the Taliban. In the past few weeks, two judicial officers from the Afghan Ministry of Justice have been killed in alleged revenge attacks in Kabul.
International human rights groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have reported extrajudicial killings and kidnappings despite a Taliban amnesty for government employees.
Hundreds of female judges went into hiding when the group took power in August. Some attempted to leave the country during the US-led evacuation in August, while others faced their fate in Afghanistan.
“Personally, I have received many calls and threats from the Taliban and its associated members,” said an Afghan judge from Parwan province, who was among the candidates for exit.
The judge, who joined the bank in 2018, now lives in the UK. She said her property, belongings and all other assets had been confiscated by the Taliban and her loved ones were at risk of persecution by the Islamist group.
“Female judges played a vital role in establishing the rule of law and fighting corruption within the industry,” she said. “If they leave the country, there will be a huge vacuum for the judiciary.”
Around 230 female Afghan judges are still stranded in Afghanistan, all of them in hiding. According to interviews with judges and activists working on their behalf, former homes were searched and ransacked and relatives were threatened.
“Their careers are over, their bank accounts have been frozen and their future as women in Afghanistan is bleak,” said Judge Anisa Dhanji, a UK representative for the not-for-profit International Association of Women Judges IAWJ.
The IAWJ, which has trained several female Afghan judges in the past, coordinated the evacuation of dozens of judges amid the chaos and violence at Kabul airport after the Taliban came to power.
It was a complex operation with multiple teams working all night with maps and interpreters, coordinating intelligence reports on what was happening at Kabul airport gates.
About 40 Afghan women judges and their families were evacuated. Most are now in the US and Europe and some in Turkey, Tajikistan, Iran and the Gulf. But many others stayed behind.
An Afghan judge hiding in Kabul told the IAWJ that a man she had convicted of terrorism charges had not only been released and threatened, but had also been appointed as a Taliban judge.
Another judge said that she should be born immediately with a scheduled caesarean section, but she was too scared to go to a hospital and identify herself there.
Aside from these shocking cases, the sudden disappearance of justice has dealt a blow across the board to women seeking justice in Afghanistan.
“With the courts closed, women have no way of complaining about rape or abuse by their husbands and other men,” said Zainab, an independent lawyer who runs a law firm in several Afghan cities whose names we have changed.
“Nobody comes up to discuss it because there are no lawyers left,” she said.
All Zainab offices have been closed and its 15 employees have lost their jobs. She received her own threat from a man in Herat whom she charged with sexual assault but released by the Taliban.
“He said: ‘I will find you, even if you hide in Herat, and then I will hand you over to the Taliban.'”
A senior Taliban spokesman and minister denied responsibility for the threats and searches of the property of judges and other judicial officers.
“We reject these allegations that our fighters would never do such a thing,” Zabihullah Mujahid told the BBC.
When asked whether the judges and prosecutors are allowed to work again, Mujahid said: “A decision will be made and a framework will be worked out. Then everything will become clear.”
Activists say the Afghan lawyers and judges in hiding are running out of time.
“The urgency at the moment is to help those who want to leave,” said Judge Dhanji.
“Their lives and the lives of their families are in danger. They are hunted just for condemning men.”
Additional coverage by the Afghan BBC producer Mahfouz Zubaide