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Tuesday, 28 September 2021
Female Afghan judges hunted by the murderers they convicted
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From the BBC

They were the trailblazers of women's rights in Afghanistan. They were the staunch defenders of the law, seeking justice for their country's most marginalised. But now, more than 220 female Afghan judges are in hiding due to fear of retribution under Taliban rule. Six former female judges spoke to the BBC from secret locations across Afghanistan. All of their names have been changed for their safety.

Throughout her career as a judge, Masooma has convicted hundreds of men for violence against women, including rape, murder and torture. But just days after the Taliban took control of her city and thousands of convicted criminals were released from prison, the death threats began. Text messages, voice notes and unknown numbers began bombarding her phone.

In the past 20 years, 270 women have sat as judges in Afghanistan. As some of the most powerful and prominent women in the country, they are known public figures.

"Travelling by car out of the city, I wore a burka, so no-one would recognise me. Fortunately, we made it past all the Taliban checkpoints." 

Shortly after they left, her neighbours texted her to say several members of the Taliban had arrived at her old house. Masooma says that as soon as they described the men, she knew who was looking for her.

Several months ago, prior to the Taliban takeover, Masooma was ruling over a case investigating a member of the group for brutally murdering his wife. Upon finding him guilty, Masooma sentenced the man to 20 years in prison.

"I can still see the image of that young woman in my mind. It was a brutal crime," says Masooma. "After the case was over, the criminal approached me and said: 'When I get out of prison, I will do to you what I did to my wife. 

"At the time I didn't take him seriously. But since the Taliban took power, he has called me many times and said he has taken all of my information from the court offices. "He told me: 'I will find you and have my revenge.'"

At least 220 former female judges are known to currently be in hiding across Afghanistan, a BBC investigation has found.

Speaking to six former judges from different provinces, their testimonies of the past five weeks were almost identical. All have received death threats from members of the Taliban whom they previously committed to prison. Four named specific men whom they sentenced for murdering their wives. All have changed their phone number at least once due to receiving death threats.

They are all currently living in hiding, moving locations every few days.

In response to the accusations, Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi told the BBC: "Female judges should live like any other family without fear. No-one should threaten them. Our special military units are obliged to investigate such complaints and act if there is a violation."

For more than three decades, Judge Sanaa investigated cases of violence against women and children. She says the majority of her cases involved convicting members of the Taliban as well as militant group Isis.

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

Only once has one of her male relatives returned to their former family home. But as he was packing some clothes, the Taliban arrived at the house in several cars full of armed men, led by a commander. "I opened the door. They asked me whether this was the judge's house," he says. "When I said I didn't know where she was, they threw me on the stairs. One of them hit me with the butt of his gun and started beating me..."

For decades, Afghanistan has continued to rank as one of the hardest countries in the world. According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 87% of women and girls will experience abuse during their lifetime.

But this community of judges, by working to uphold the country's former laws which aimed to support women, have helped to advocate for the idea that violence against women and girls is a punishable criminal offence.

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

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

"I wanted to serve my country, that's why I became a judge," says Asma, speaking from a safe house. "In the family affairs court, I dealt mostly with cases involving women who wanted a divorce or separation from members of the Taliban. This posed a real threat to us. Once, the Taliban even launched rockets at the court..."

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

Judge Masooma says she fears (such) promises of help (from UK and New Zealand) will not arrive in time.

"Sometimes I think, what is our crime? Being educated? Trying to help women and punish criminals?"

I think the role of Judge in Afghanistan must be part of the investigative process, more like under the Napoleonic code, in contrast to the duty of a Judge in the UK's adversarial court proceedings. Below is a picture of woman judges in Afghan court  dress, at a conference in 2013. 

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Posted on 09/28/2021 6:55 AM by Esmerelda Weatherwax
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