Joe O’Malley tells the astonishing story of the Afghan Female Judges; their settlement in Ireland and how the legal community here responded to a humanitarian crisis. This article first appeared in the Winter Edition of the Parchment, the Dublin Solicitors Bar Association Magazine.
As part of an unprecedented global initiative spearheaded by the International Association of Women Judges, Ireland is currently facilitating the settlement of 10 Afghan female Judges and their families by giving them refugee status in Ireland.
The Irish legal community, in conjunction with Irish Red Cross are doing their part to make available suitable accommodation for our Afghan colleagues and their families and implement a community sponsorship programme that will enable them to transition safely and effectively into Irish society. This is an extraordinary response by the legal community to an international crisis and to find out more I met with the very inspirational international justices behind the launch of this initiative, Judge Shireen Avis Fisher and Judge Patricia Whalen.
Judge Fisher is a judge of the Residual Special Court of Sierra Leone and previously served as an Appeals Judge at the Special Court for Sierra Leone from 2009 to 2013. She was elected President of the Court in 2012 presiding over the appeal of Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia convicted by the Special Court for war crimes.
Judge Whalen has been a Judge for more than 20 years having presided over proceedings in the US and is the founding member of the Afghan Judicial Education programme which facilitates cultural judicial learning in both the US and Afghanistan. She served as official representative of the International Association of Women Judges at the Hague Conference on Private International Law.
Both served as pioneering international judges at the War Crimes Chamber of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their intellect, compassion and energy are in abundance.
The International Association of Women Judges has been involved in Afghanistan since 2003, a time when the Taliban had recently been driven from power and become fractured. The Association has had an ongoing relationship with the Afghan female judicial community and when it was first anticipated earlier this year that the US and NATO troops would complete their withdrawal, the Association increased its focus again on the female Afghan judicial community.
Taliban takeover and call to action
Whalen says that until the sudden fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August and the emergency mass evacuation of troops, the female Afghan judges were going about their daily business and many were sitting in court on the morning when the Taliban take over struck. They were forced to return to their homes, gather no more than an 11kg backpack (less than an airplane carry on) before fleeing their homes and having all of their bank accounts cancelled. Their world literally suffered an overnight collapse.
Whalen, Fisher and their colleagues in the International Association of Women Judges had been planning for such an event and through connections with international groups like the International Bar Association and local connections in countries willing to take fleeing refugees from Afghanistan, they managed to secure visas for the majority of the female Afghan judges and their families. 240 of such judges comprising the majority of female Afghan judges wanted to leave and be resettled elsewhere (some, mainly older judges decided to remain) and to date 153 of these judges and their families (totaling over 700 persons) have been evacuated from Afghanistan and have either been settled in host countries or are in this process, currently situated in a temporary location awaiting visas and confirmation of a resettlement destination. More visas and resettlement places are urgently needed and Whalen and Fisher continue their plea for host countries to come to their aid. This leaves 87 judges and their families (totaling 600 persons) who remain and for which ongoing efforts are being made to evacuate and resettle them.
Ireland has played its part by accepting 10 female Afghan judges and their families, three of whom have already arrived and the remaining seven are in the process of being resettled in Ireland.
Whalen says “what Irish lawyers are doing is consistent with work going all around the world whereby civil society groups are rescuing people in the humanitarian crisis. It’s not government groups although the Irish Government has been very good to work with. It is the efforts of civil society groups that is the big story.”
The female Afghan judges’ cohort, broadly divide into two groups. The first is the judges who were appointed before the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 and the second group (comprising most of the Judges settling in Ireland) is the newer judges who trained and practiced in a post-Taliban run society.
Legal credentials of distinction
Like Ireland and many other countries, Afghan legal students attend law courses at university for four years and then go on to choose to train as a lawyer, an advocate or a judge. This group have trained and practiced as judges and have held very distinctive positions throughout the judicial system in Afghanistan. One of them, Judge Rasooli, known as ‘the Afghan RBG’ is the only woman to be nominated (twice) to the Afghan Supreme Council (Court). All of them will be honored next Spring with the prestigious Global Jurist of the Year award from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center for International Human Rights (CIHR) in recognition of their courage in the face of adversity to uphold and defend fundamental human rights and principles of international criminal justice. Notably, Fisher is a former recipient of this award.
Of the 10 female judges who have been granted visas to relocate and live in Ireland, they possess enormous and invaluable skills and experience which include vast judicial experience in all courts dealing with public security, terrorist offences, drug trafficking, public corruption, violence against women, murder, rape, forced marriages, kidnappings and foreign criminal activities.
Traditionally, female judges in Afghanistan have been given dangerous roles working in courts that sentenced criminals including ex-Taliban members to prison. Many worked on the US-funded narcotics court which sought to address the very serious heroin distribution and export problem in Afghanistan. On the Taliban taking over power and releasing all Taliban prisoners, many of these judges found their lives in immediate danger. Some of them are closely related to serving Taliban members who decry their positions under the new Taliban rule.
Whalen, having previous experience in dealing with female Afghan judges, recalls that back in 2007, a colleague female judge whom she admired and knew very well had made a complaint about a male counterpart on the court whom she suspected of accepting bribes and being corrupt. The judge sought to make a complaint to a foreign embassy and Whalen recalls poignantly that 24 hours later she was reported as having been killed.
At that time, Whalen had personal experience in visiting certain courts in Afghanistan and specifically recalls attending a juvenile court sitting where the court had no electricity and had scribes to take down testimony. She witnessed a juvenile with very little clothing and no boots or a coat being brought before a female judge who showed remarkable compassion and directed the accused to be given clothes and boots before proceeding, standing up for his dignity.
Whalen and Fisher describe with astonishing detail, the efforts made to achieve the evacuation of the female Afghan judges and their visa entries into host countries.
Whalen remarks that before this campaign the International Association of Women Judges operated like a typical bar association by running events for members and it was not their modus operandi to get persons evacuated from a country and negotiate host countries with foreign governments. The airport evacuations commenced on 15 August and the Association had to go into crisis mode. They speak about one particular family who had to escape through navigating a sewer over the course of 20 hours (see featured image).
They comment on the tremendous support they received from the Polish Special Forces who were on the ground in Kabul at the time (when the NATO and US soldiers couldn’t leave Kabul airport). These forces devised a code for their summoning by the Association with a name they would never forget: ‘Krakow’ (see also featured image).
The ground operations involved massive maneuvers and fundraising including chartering a plane for $800,000 and working with various agents to get the female judges and their families out of Afghanistan. All of this was done under extreme pressure, tension and anxiety for the Association and the female judges being evacuated.
Whalen and Fisher note that the evacuation was only half the battle and the next part of the puzzle was to decide where the group and their families can go.
For the most part, the group wanted to go to English speaking western democracies which has made Ireland a very attractive destination. However, this is part of global movement involving most of Europe, the US, UK and parts of South America, South Korea and Northern Europe.
While pleading for more visas and host countries, they are conscious not to add to the universal problem of migration and they acknowledge that efforts like this do mean skipping the queue ahead of others in refugee camps.
As part of the resettlement phase, they worked with organizations such as the Max Planck Society in order to establish a priority list. While recognizing that everyone identified who wanted to leave Afghanistan should be able to leave, they needed to devise a set of objective factors for the purposes of identifying and ordering the members of the group to be evacuated and resettled. As judges, they are familiar with establishing equitable and fair objective standards but doing so in response to this crisis was unprecedented.
Fisher informs me that of the 10 female judges and their families coming to Ireland these are mostly representative of the younger cohort where their high priority is to seek to acclimatize to Ireland and its legal community and to re-establish their career insofar as possible. Seven of them have children and most of them have extended family including parents who will accompany them as part of their relocation.
Whalen is very appreciative of Ireland’s acknowledgment of the extended family and notes that some other countries also acting as host states have taken a narrower view by admitting only a nuclear family comprising of parents and children.
Legal community response
Fisher says that support and encouragement from the legal community is so important and this should also extend to them being informed by colleagues and their community in relation to cultural and societal norms here.
Whalen and Fisher commend the legal community in Ireland for their response, particularly in relation to providing housing which is often the number one problem, post-evacuation. The Irish legal community have offered up housing for these families, which are currently being vetted and the DSBA has arranged (with the assistance of Hayes solicitors) to arrange all legal formalities around these house lettings. They were also impressed by the community sponsorship programme which will be implemented and which rests on the notion of a support group to enable their integration and independence as quickly as possible. They say “it is equally important that these judges and their families will be provided with professional development and support and allowed to continue their studies and use their very impressive skills and knowledge to pursue career opportunities in this country.”
However, more visas and financial aid are now the key and most urgent requirements. A donation page has been set up, the details of which are below, courtesy of the Irish Rule of Law International.
The DSBA urge you to make a donation and contribute to this great and unprecedented initiative in allowing the female Afghan judges and their families achieve a successful settlement in Ireland and have the support for their families in relation to housing, education, health and social support. This is an opportunity to showcase to the world at large, the humanitarian and collegiate support of Irish lawyers to our legal colleagues suffering unimaginable loss and distress. It’s also a unique opportunity for us to gain an incredibly talented group as part of our legal community.
About the Irish Justice Community Response
The Response is represented by a coalition of The Association of Judges of Ireland, Bar of Ireland, Irish Rule of Law and the Law Society, along with support and input of the Irish Refugee Resettlement Programme, and the Irish Red Cross.
The coalition came together in late September to advance a number of opportunities to assist, through existing connections with IAWJ and others. The launch, in early October was endorsed by the leadership of all participating bodies.
Joe O’Malley is Managing Partner of Hayes solicitors LLP and immediate past President of the DSBA.Back to Full News
Share this article:
About the Author
Joe is Managing Partner and Head of the Commercial Litigation & Dispute Resolution team at Hayes solicitors. He handles a wide variety of commercial disputes involving high value claims, complex issues and voluminous data for financial institutions and corporate clients.