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Afghanistan: As Taliban gains ground, female judges fear for their safety

As the Taliban advances steadily and gains control over most of Afghanistan, many Afghans, afraid of their future, are trying to leave. The U.S. withdrawal is expected to undo much of the progress made in Afghan society over the last two decades, especially the investments made in girls' education and the advancement of women. Christopher Booker reports on the fear among some of Afghanistan’s 250 female judges.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban quickly ceded control.

    In the two decades since, with help from the U.S. And NATO, Afghanistan ushered in democratic elections – expanding education for women and girls, and broadening civil society. One significant change was in the criminal justice system with the appointment of more than 250 female judges across the country.

    With the Taliban regaining ground, most of that progress is now under threat, as the U.S. embassy reduces its staff to "core diplomatic presence" and U.S. Troops prepare to make their complete withdrawal from the country by the end of the month.

    As NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports, Afghan female judges are worried about their safety and their future.

  • Christopher Booker:

    If there was any ambiguity surrounding the intent of the Taliban, it's mostly gone now. As each province falls, whether in the north, south, east or west – their sprint through the country seems part of a larger effort for complete control of Afghanistan.

    While the capital city Kabul still stands, as the Taliban expands their control, from Kunduz last Sunday, to Kandahar. Herat and Lashkar Gah on Friday, the circle surrounding democratically elected Afghanistan continues to shrink.

    For the Islamic fundamentalists, Kabul could well be the final prize, but for the Afghans currently in that rapidly shrinking space who have been participating in the nearly 20-year effort to build a more robust civil society, a Taliban victory will most certainly be accompanied by untold terror. And while the two-decade effort included untold thousands, there is an frantic effort underway in to save a few of them: Afghanistan's 250 female judges.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Looks like everyone is there.

    This is of course, challenging: communication is difficult, logistics nearly impossible, and time seems to be running out.

    On Thursday, with the help of interpreter Farah Arjang we spoke with three judges desperately trying to get out of Afghanistan.

    For their safety, we are not sharing their names or showing their faces.

    Voice of Afghan Judge: So the Taliban know about our whereabouts. they already have gathered all the information they need. So there is no way for us to hide or there is no way for us to stay. And we have to find ways for us and our family to find safe places.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Is the only solution to leave?

    Voice of Afghan Judge: This is obvious and you see what is going on that the Taliban is coming to Kabul. They are going to kill us but also our families. And it's creating a lot of stress for us.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Over the past 20 years, the civil society of Afghanistan has been dramatically transformed: in 2003, just two years after Taliban rule ended fewer than 10 percent of girls were enrolled in primary school. By 2017 that number had risen to 33 percent and when the U.S. first arrived, there were zero women serving as judges.

    Today Afghanistan's 250 female judges make up about ten percent of the country's judiciary.

    Voice of Afghan Judge: People also changed and democracy grew and it's a pity that the Taliban is coming they are going to ruin everything all of our achievements.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Does she feel abandoned by the west and the Americans?

    Voice of Afghan Judge: If this is not considered a political response, definitely. That is the case. That created a crisis for us. And now they have left.

  • Judge Vanessa Ruiz:

    Everything that a woman judge is is anathema to the Taliban ideology.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Judge Vanessa Ruiz is a senior judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

    She is also a former president of IAWJ, the International Association of Women Judges.

    The coalition of 6,500 female judges from around the world was founded nearly 30 years ago. the IAWJ started working and supporting female judges from Afghanistan in 2003.

    Judge Ruiz worked with many of them through the years.

  • Judge Vanessa Ruiz:

    They represent everything that the Taliban do not want women to do or to be. The last time the Taliban were in control in the 90s or they took control back then, the judges were the first women that the Taliban went after to remove them from their positions.

    In January, two female judges from Afghanistan's Supreme Court were assassinated in Kabul. The killings are part of a spate of violence that has included prominent politicians, journalists and activists in recent months.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Just last weekend, as Kunduz fell, the Taliban opened the prisons. And in some cases, those prisoners were the very people that some of these judges put away. So whether you're talking about broader Taliban philosophy, you also have personal vendettas at play now?

  • Judge Vanessa Ruiz:

    . It isn't just about ideology. It's also just personal revenge. Some of the judges have received threatening notes from within prison, within prisons about 'I know who you are. I expect to be released. We're coming to get you.' And now, of course, as you say, they are being released.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Is there any indication that this group of judges, these 250 judges, will be granted some type of special visa to enter the United States or to enter another Western country?

  • Judge Vanessa Ruiz:

    As far as we know, there is currently no category that would cover the women judges as women judges. There's been a lot of conversation around the interpreters and translators who worked with the military who assisted them. There really has not been much public conversation about women who are particularly vulnerable in our mind.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Last yesterday, Canada announced it would accept 20,000 vulnerable Afghans, such as women leaders,

    But whatever decision they make, it will have to be made quickly.

    In recent days, reports have emerged of Taliban brutality. Stories of executions and forced marriages in the areas where the Taliban has taken control.

    On Thursday, The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said it had received reports of the Taliban executing members of the Afghan military who had surrendered.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Has the IAWJ faced a crisis like this before?

  • Judge Vanessa Ruiz:

    Never this this kind of country wide basis where all of the women judges appear to be at risk. We need to be able to help them to have real options. We cannot decide for them. They have been quite direct in saying that if they stay, they think they will be killed and that their families will be killed. And the question is, how can they make it to a place of safety right now, as far as I can tell, there is no coordinated mechanism for the women judges to get to that place of safety.

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