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Afghan women prosecutors once seen as symbols of democracy find asylum in Spain

AFGHANISTAN-CONFLICT-WOMEN-SPAIN:Afghan women prosecutors once seen as symbols of democracy find asylum in Spain
AFGHANISTAN-CONFLICT-WOMEN-SPAIN:Afghan women prosecutors once seen as symbols of democracy find asylum in Spain Copyright Thomson Reuters 2023
Copyright Thomson Reuters 2023
By Reuters
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MADRID - Pushing her son on a swing at a playground on a sunny winter's day in Madrid, former Afghan prosecutor Obaida Sharar expresses relief that she found asylum in Spain after fleeing Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban took over.

Sharar, who arrived in Madrid with her family, is one of 19 female prosecutors to have found asylum in the country after being left in limbo in Pakistan without official refugee status for up to a year after the Taliban's return to power.

She feels selfish being happy while her fellow women suffer, she said.

"Most Afghan women and girls that remain in Afghanistan don't have the right to study, to have a social life or even go to a beauty salon," Sharar said. "I cannot be happy."

Women's freedoms in her home country were abruptly curtailed in 2021 with the arrival of a government that enforces a strict interpretation of Islam.

The Taliban administration has banned most female aid workers and last year stopped women and girls from attending high school and university.

Sharar's work and that of her female peers while they lived in Afghanistan was dangerous. Female judges and prosecutors were threatened and became the target of revenge attacks as they undertook work overseeing the trial and conviction of men accused of gender crimes, including rape and murder.

She was part of a group of 32 women judges and prosecutors that left Afghanistan only to be stuck in Pakistan for up to a year trying to find asylum.

A prosecutor, who gave only her initials as S.M. due to fears over her safety and who specialised in gender violence and violence against children said, "I was the only female prosecutor in the province... I received threats from Taliban members and the criminals who I had sent to prison."

Now she and her family are also in Spain.

Many of the women have said they felt abandoned by Western governments and international organizations.

Ignacio Rodriguez, a Spanish lawyer and president of Bilbao-based 14 Lawyers, a non-governmental organisation which defends prosecuted lawyers, said the women had been held up as symbols of democratic success only to be discarded.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was not in a position to comment on specific cases.

"The Government of Pakistan has not agreed to recognise newly arriving Afghans as refugees," UNHCR said in a statement. "Since 2021, UNHCR has been in discussions with the government on measures and mechanisms to support vulnerable Afghans. Regrettably, no progress has been made."  

The foreign ministry of Pakistan did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Pakistan is home to millions of refugees from Afghanistan who fled after the Soviet Union's invasion in 1979 and during the subsequent civil war. Most of them are yet to return despite Pakistan's push to repatriate them under different programmes. 

The Taliban has said any Afghan who fled the country since it took power in 2021 can return safely through a repatriation council.

"Afghanistan is the joint home of all Afghans," said Bilal Karimi, deputy spokesperson for the Taliban administration. "They can live here without any threat."

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