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After the fall

After the fall

Refugee status for Afghan women judges



To date, Ireland has offered full refugee status to ten Afghan women judges and their families, who fled their country following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021. 

On 29 September 2021, Ireland offered full refugee status to ten Afghan women judges and their families – a total of 43 people. The International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) had been involved in the recruitment and training of Afghan women judges since 2004. When Kabul fell to the Taliban last August, all 270 female judges in the country were members of the IAWJ.

After the fall

After the fall
A US C-17 is loaded with 640 Afghans escaping the Taliban in August 2021

Before the fall of Kabul, all 270 judges initially wished to continue working in their own country, but it soon became clear that this would be impossible. In all, 240 judges asked IAWJ for assistance in escaping.

Over 90 remain in Afghanistan – for now, in safe houses – and many who were successfully extracted continue to be stranded in temporary refugee accommodation in other countries while they seek visas for permanent resettlement.

Chaos

Amid the chaos of the Taliban takeover, volunteer IAWJ judges began organising the extraction of judges and their immediate families, with the assistance of partnering NGOs. They were evacuated to safe havens, where they began seeking visas for countries where they could permanently resettle.

The ten judges who ultimately resettled in Ireland were sent to Greece, Macedonia, UAE, and other ‘lily-pad’ countries until their papers were processed and they flew to Dublin.

Justice Shireen Avis Fisher, a member of the IAWJ, is an international judge who sits on the Residual Special Court of Sierra Leone. She explains that, under the Taliban, women sitting in judgment of men is considered blasphemy and punishable by death. After the Taliban takeover, the danger to women judges increased exponentially: “They opened the jails, and many of the men that had been sentenced by these women had sworn revenge and were coming looking for them.”

“It’s also blasphemy for a male parent or sibling or husband to ‘allow’ a woman to sit in judgment. The brothers and fathers of some of our judges have been detained by the Taliban and harassed repeatedly,” Justice Fisher adds.

Justice Fisher liaises with the Irish steering committee for the Justice Appeal for the women – including Ms Justice Mary Rose Gearty, Cormac Ó Culáin (Bar of Ireland), Aonghus Kelly and James Douglas (Irish Rule of Law International), and Ms Justice Tara Burns (President of the Association of Judges of Ireland) – through weekly meetings, and regular contact with the Afghan families.

Chased out

“These women were chased out of Afghanistan by the Taliban because they are women and because they are judges, so that’s why we became involved,” explains Justice Gearty, who is centrally involved in the Irish legal profession’s resettlement efforts. These were emergency relocations, the judge explains, adding that she hopes the Afghan families will be safely rehoused before the impact of the Ukraine refugee crisis hits this country in full.

The response of the Irish Government is described as extremely generous – the women are not asylum-seekers, but have been granted full refugee status, with the same benefits as Irish citizens.

“There is a recognition that this has been a peculiarly female crisis,” she adds. “We want to try to have real friends for these judges, not just professional support, but friendship. It’s so important to keep a focus on them and keep everyone alive to their plight and sympathetic to their concerns. The immediate requirement is to offer housing, social and personal support.”

Along with a sympathetic State response, there have been astonishing offers of support from the legal community. The Law Society has offered to host a generous reception for the judges, and has created a programme of education in legal English, which will be of enormous benefit to the judges and their families in Ireland.

While the Afghan judges are deeply appreciative of what is being done for them in Ireland, some find it difficult to sleep due to anxiety about their parents and siblings who remain in Afghanistan.

A senior counsel who specialises in immigration has met with each of the judges, answered questions, and given advice about the immediate and long-term possibilities for family members. Also, an immigration solicitor is generously working pro bono in applying for family reunification.

Justice Gearty believes that, if extended families can be housed nearby, it will help the judges settle in this country – this is another area where the legal profession may be able to help.

She observes that it’s very hard for the judges to accept this much charity, but the support group is actively looking for appropriate career paths for the women, including one “very thoughtful” offer of a mediation job in HR, a role that involves many of the same skill-sets as those of lawyers and judges.

“Their lives are completely upended. These are dedicated, ambitious, intelligent women who really want to make a contribution to this country, but also want to return to Afghanistan, if they can, to rebuild their own country.”

Exceptional women

These judges were ranking autonomous officials and financially independent in Afghanistan, observes Justice Fisher. “To obtain these positions as women in the Afghan culture and government, they have had to be exceptional. They have not only achieved academic excellence, but they have shown courage and commitment in the face of adversity.

“Not coincidentally, these are qualities that IAWJ nurtures in its training of women judges. Those qualities do not disappear because the judges are now refugees,” she adds.

In a matter of months, these strong and courageous women have become unemployed, impoverished, disempowered, and dependent on the welfare of the Irish State and the generosity of strangers. This creates a lot of room for confusion about what they are expected to provide for themselves, what will be provided for them, and how they are expected to act.

Educational goals

Irish legal volunteer teams, coordinated by Ms Justice Tara Burns, look after the judges’ social-support needs, while Justice Fisher oversees the education programme. English proficiency is critical to educational goals, as well as to assimilation into Irish life.

The Afghan judges, through the IAWJ and the Max Planck Institute, have some scholarship opportunities. Each judge has also been assigned a trainee solicitor to help them navigate the research of career and educational options.

The Afghan women must accept that, unlike in their home country, they cannot train specifically to become a judge, and it remains a position that very few achieve under the common-law system and, even then, only after many years of practice as a lawyer. (After their university law degree, Afghans choose to train as a lawyer, an advocate, or a judge.)

That said, there are many other potential jobs for lawyers within the Irish courts system. All of the judges have received a tour of the Four Courts, have been introduced to judicial colleagues, and were presented with a copy of the Irish Constitution by Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell.

Each judge was given a refurbished laptop computer, donated by Irish Life, and a modem for internet access provided by the appeal fund.

Mobile phones are self-funded. The donated laptops were distributed to the judges by local lawyers, through the coordination efforts of the Bar of Ireland’s Cormac Ó Culáin, who also organised festive gift baskets.

One judge’s story

One of the judges, ‘Judge Fatima’ (not her real name), is now living in Dublin with her husband and small children, and trying valiantly to piece together her life and learn English to a standard where she can resume legal work.

“My heart is with Ireland because this is also my country now. In a difficult day, Irish society came to my aid,” she says.

Fatima and her family were initially sent to an emergency reception and orientation centre and had to deal with a flood of paperwork, as well as strange weather and food. She recounts the terror and tears of leaving her home country with nothing but a 7kg piece of hand luggage, and learning that her home, paid for with her salary, is now occupied by strangers.

“I want to continue my education because I love my job. I want to improve my English-language skills first. And later I want to study to become a lawyer. I am keen to contribute to Irish society and be a positive person, because the Irish Government was by my side during the bad days of my life. I am very grateful to the Irish judges and lawyers who are by my side.

“I want to serve the Irish community. English is the key for progress for me – I can’t be a success in Irish life without it,” she says. “I love my job and I’m very upset about not judging,” she adds. “I also want the remaining women judges to be helped to move out of Afghanistan as soon as possible.”

Hard-won qualifications

An outstanding student, Fatima managed to hide her impressive folder of academic qualifications among her belongings as she fled. These qualifications were hard-won, given the many difficulties faced by women in Afghanistan: “Judging in Afghanistan was not easy,” she says. “I passed many difficult exams to become a judge.”

With excellent grades and four languages (Pashtu, Arabic, Farsi and some English), Fatima was one of 300 selected from 5,000 applicants to study for a two-year judicial education training course. In 2017, she was assigned to a public security court, a dangerous two-hour trip from Kabul, where she was a member of the court.

“I dealt with civil and criminal cases. Most cases were criminal, including drug trafficking, arms and ammunition smuggling, kidnapping, terrorism, and cases of corruption – bribery, embezzlement of government property, encroachment on public service.”

Once the Taliban threw open the jails, Judge Fatima’s life was in danger, as those seeking revenge were free to come after her.

“The Taliban attached explosives to vehicles. I lived in constant fear. Before and after each journey, we would check the car for devices. The Taliban believe that it is forbidden for a woman to work as a judge. I did not feel safe.”

Before coming to power, the Taliban also brutally ousted and assassinated several judges: “Every time a judge was killed, I became more afraid. Some even told me to quit because it was dangerous, but I never conceded defeat. I fought in the most difficult conditions.

“But the day the Taliban came to power was the most painful day of my life. Everything changed. On that day, not only did the people cry, but even the streets and cities were silent. In the city, children playing, the movement of cars, the sound of pedlars, was no longer heard. My city had become terrible.”

Fatima went into hiding before being rescued through a secret transfer organised by the IAWJ. But she feels deeply for her male colleagues, who are still in hiding, depressed, scared, unable to work, and running short of money, with no sponsors to extract them from the country.

“Everything changed overnight,” she says. Music, parties, picnics ceased. Whatever modern progress Kabul had made all came to a sudden stop. “The Taliban do not pay the people who work in the offices – if they do pay, it’s very little, not like before. People live in absolute poverty. And in remote provinces, money is looted, and the people are generally oppressed.”

Different courts

“The Taliban now have different courts; they judge for themselves and have mufti who graduated from religious schools,” Fatima explains. “The Taliban did not close the family courts, but women can no longer come and pursue family cases, in the absence of women judges.

“Twenty years ago, the Taliban did not allow girls to go to school and did not allow women to work. Now, I do not know what their plans are for girls’ schools, but they will never allow women to work in the same office as men,” she says.

The situation is Afghanistan is now chaotic, with a seized-up economy and the population out of work and running short of food and essential medicine. The media are controlled, and freedom of expression has been eliminated. It’s a bleak vista of rolled-back rights and censorship.

“It has been proven to the world that oppressive governments do not last,” Judge Fatima says, holding on to the hope that her homeland will eventually be freed from oppression. “The Taliban offer nothing to the people.

“I am safe in Ireland with my husband and children. From the day we came to Ireland, I feel safe,” she says, telling of the support offered by other mothers in her neighbourhood. “They don’t say: ‘She is an Afghan person’, and leave me out – they include me,” she smiles.

“But my family in Afghanistan is not safe. They have no security, no economy, no money, no work, no job. It’s the law of terrorism now.”

Mary Hallissey is a journalist with the Law Society Gazette.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.