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Afghan women lawyers on the run face life in limbo abroad

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By Reuters

By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS -When the Taliban seized Afghanistan, lawyer Bibi Chaman Hafizi heard the militants were going door to door, hunting for people who worked for the state, so she burned every document in her home and went into hiding. Then she fled the country.

Like dozens more women working in the legal sphere, Hafizi, who handled cases for the Counter Narcotics Justice Centre, was chased out of Afghanistan by the men they had jailed, now freed from prison by the insurgents.

“When the Taliban came, we felt fear,” she said, sitting in a bare-bones apartment in the Greek capital. “That if we fall into the hands of the Taliban, they will kill us.”

Hafizi was on the run for seven weeks with her journalist husband and their two children, moving between four cities before being evacuated to Greece with 25 more women judges and lawyers and their families.

Now they are stuck in limbo, without work and only a few belongings, and face months of bureaucracy before reaching their final destination elsewhere in Europe.

“The women who worked in the pursuit of justice are now trapped in their homes,” she said.

Afghan women made great strides in the two decades since the Taliban ruled the country from 1996-2001, joining previously all-male bastions such as the judiciary, the media and politics.

Since returning to power in August, the Taliban pledged to protect women’s rights in accordance with Islamic law and announced a general “amnesty” for all former state workers.

But advocates fear a backslide to when women were not allowed to work and girls were banned from school.

“I would ask the international community to not recognise the Taliban,” Hafizi said. “What they say is different to what they do.”

Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, denied the accounts of women judges and lawyers who had fled.

“They are trying to resettle in Western countries, using this pretext,” he said. “We have announced general amnesty and we are committed to that.”

UNDERTHREAT

Afghanistan has about 500 registered women lawyers and about 250 women judges, carrying out dangerous work even before the Taliban took power.

For months Hafizi feared for her life, taking a different route to work every day after two Supreme Court women judges were killed by unidentified gunmen in January.

Judges would receive threats from the Taliban saying “‘We will attack your homes’ or ‘we will enter the courtroom’,” said Friba Quraishi, a judge who presided over cases including the 2016 attack on the German consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif and the 2017 killing of a Spanish physiotherapist with the Red Cross.

On the day the Taliban took her city, Quaraishi fled the court where she was working, fearing the Taliban would come after her.

“The criminals who were captured, I delivered their judgment. They knew me and I was under threat,” she said.

While in hiding, Quraishi said she received calls from the Taliban from four different numbers. “They found my number and they started threatening me,” she said

Quraishi was forced to leave Afghanistan when she realised she could no longer leave the house and her children could not go to school.

“I couldn’t see a future for myself or my children… There was no light,” she said.

Now in Athens, Quraishi hopes to reunite with family in the Netherlands, and to be able to work again.

Greece said 367 Afghan citizens, mostly judiciary workers, arrived in Athens on Sunday where they were offered temporary shelter.

With Afghanistan plunged into deep economic crisis, few Afghans can imagine returning.

“It will get worse than this,” Hafizi said. “In a country where there is no work and people are trying to escape, there is no hope.”