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Female Afghan judges were hunted by the killers they convicted1

Six former female judges spoke to the BBC from underground locations across Afghanistan. All their names have been changed for their protection. She was a champion of women’s rights in Afghanistan. He was a staunch defender of the law, seeking justice for his country’s most backward people. But now, more than 220 Afghan judges are in hiding for fear of retaliation under Taliban rule.

Female Afghan Judges

During her career as a judge, Masooma has convicted hundreds of men of violence against women, including rape, murder and violence.

But a few days later, when the Taliban took control of his city and thousands of convicted criminals were released from prison, death threats began.

Text messages, voice notes and unknown numbers bombarded his phone.

“It was midnight when we heard that the Taliban had released all the prisoners,” says Masooma.

“We fled immediately. We left our home and everything behind.”

A woman cries in protest of the interim government being all male.
In the last 20 years, 270 women have served as judges in Afghanistan. As some of the country’s most powerful and prominent women, she is known as a public figure.

“Traveling out of town by car, I was wearing a burqa, so no one recognized me.

Shortly after his departure, his neighbors texted him that several Taliban members had arrived at his old home.

Masooma says that as soon as she described the men, she knew who was looking for her.

Taliban fighters approach female protesters in Kabul.
Several months ago, before the Taliban took over, Masooma was ruling a case investigating the brutal murder of the wife of a member of the group.

On finding him guilty, Masooma sentenced the man to 20 years in prison.

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Female Afghan judges were hunted by the killers they convicted
Female Afghan judges were hunted by the killers they convicted

“I can still see the image of this young woman in my mind. It was a brutal crime,” says Masooma.

Taliban fighters approach female protesters in Kabul.
Several months ago, before the Taliban took over, Masooma was ruling a case investigating the brutal murder of the wife of a member of the group.

On finding him guilty, Masooma sentenced the man to 20 years in prison.

“I can still see the image of this young woman in my mind. It was a brutal crime,” says Masooma.

A BBC study has found that at least 220 former female judges are currently in hiding across Afghanistan.

Speaking to six former judges from different provinces, their testimonies over the past five weeks were almost identical.

All have received death threats from Taliban members who have previously been imprisoned. Four designated individuals whom he convicted of killing his wives.

Everyone has changed their phone number at least once after receiving death threats.

They are all hiding at the moment, moving places every few days.

They also said their former home had been visited by Taliban members. Neighbors and friends reported inquiries about his whereabouts

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Responding to the allegations, Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi told the BBC: “Women judges should live like any other family without fear and danger. No one should threaten them. Our special military unit has received such complaints. Are committed to investigating and taking action in case of violation.”

He reiterated the Taliban’s promise of a “general amnesty” for all former government employees across Afghanistan: “Our general amnesty is sincere. They live in their own country.”

During the mass release of prisoners, many non-Taliban criminals were also released.

Regarding the protection of female judges, Mr. Karimi also said:

“In the case of drug dealers, members of the mafia, our intention is to destroy them. Our action against them will be serious.”

Taliban fighters patrol outside Kabul airport
As highly educated women, these judges used to be important breadwinners for their families. But now, with their salaries cut and their bank accounts frozen, they are all reduced to losing out to their relatives.

Female Afghan judges were hunted by the killers they convicted
Female Afghan judges were hunted by the killers they convicted

For more than three decades, Judge Sana has investigated cases of violence against women and children.

She says most of her cases involve punishing the Taliban as well as the militant group ISIS.

“I have received more than 20 threatening phone calls from ex-prisoners who have now been released.”

He is currently in hiding with more than a dozen family members.

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Only once has a male relative returned to his former family home. But as he was packing some clothes, the Taliban, led by a commander, arrived home in several cars full of armed men.

“I opened the door. They asked me if this was the judge’s house.” they say. “When I said I didn’t know where he was, they threw me on the stairs. One of them hit me with the butt of his gun and started hitting me. My nose and mouth were covered in blood.” ۔ “

Sana’s relative rushed to the hospital after the gunmen left.

“I told another relative that we should move to where my sister lives. Now there is no other way. We cannot escape from another country, even Pakistan.”

Fighting for women’s right

For decades, Afghanistan has been one of the most difficult countries in the world. According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 87% of women and girls will be abused during their lifetime.

But this community of judges, working to uphold the country’s previous laws aimed at supporting women, helped advocate the idea that violence against women and girls was a punishable criminal offense.

This includes charging the individual in cases of rape, torture, forced marriage, as well as in cases where women were barred from owning property or going to work or school.

As the country’s most prominent female public figures, all six say they have faced harassment throughout their careers, long before the Taliban took full control.

Speaking from a safe house, Asma says, “I wanted to serve my country, so I became a judge.”

“In the Family Affairs Court, I dealt mostly with cases involving women seeking divorce or separation from Taliban members.

“This is a real threat to us. Once the Taliban fired rockets at the court.

“We also lost a best friend and a judge. She disappeared on her way home from work. Her body was later discovered.”

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No one has ever been charged with the murder of a missing judge. At the time, local Taliban leaders denied any involvement.

Afghan girls in school before the Taliban took over
It is not yet clear how tough Afghanistan’s new leadership will be on women’s rights. But so far the approach is serious.

An acting cabinet of all men to oversee women’s affairs has already been announced, while in schools the Ministry of Education has ordered male teachers and students to return to work, but not female staff or students.

On behalf of the Taliban, Mr Karimi said he could not yet comment on whether there would be future roles for women judges: “Working conditions and opportunities for women are still being discussed. ۔ “

So far, more than 100,000 people have been deported.

All six judges say they are currently looking for a way out – but not only do they have no access to funds, they say not all close family members have passports.

Former Afghan judge Mirzia Babakarkhel, who now lives in the UK, is advocating for the immediate removal of all former female judges.

She says it is important not to forget those living in most of Afghanistan’s rural provinces, away from the country’s capital, Kabul.

“It breaks my heart when I get a call from a village judge: ‘Marzia, what should we do? Where should we go? We will be in our graves soon.’

Kabul still has some access to media and the Internet. The judges there still have some voice, but in the rural provinces they have nothing.

“Many of these judges do not have the proper paperwork to apply for a passport or leave. But they cannot be forgotten. They are also in grave danger.”

The blast wall in Kabul was painted by local artists.
Many countries, including New Zealand and the United Kingdom, have said they will offer some help. But it remains to be seen when this help will come or how many judges it will include.

Judge Masooma said she feared such promises of help would not come in time.

“Sometimes I wonder what is our crime? Being educated? Trying to help women and punishing criminals?”

“I love my country. But now I am a prisoner. We have no money. We can’t get out of the house.

“I look at my young son and I don’t know how to explain to him why he can’t talk to other kids or play in the hall. He’s already traumatized.

“I can only pray for the day when we will be free again.”

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