As It Happens

Lawyer who helped female judges escape Afghanistan 'begging' Canada to take them in

Canada owes a debt to the dozens of Afghan women judges and lawyers who had to flee their home country after the Taliban seized control, says the U.K. lawyer who helped get them out.

Helena Kennedy says the women are safe in Greece — but their visas expire Dec. 24

Afghan women — part of a group of lawyers and judges who fled Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover — meet with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou at the Presidential Palace, in Athens on Oct. 12. The women's visas are set to expire on Dec. 24, says a U.K. lawyer who helped get them out of their home country. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

Story Transcript

Canada owes a debt to the dozens of Afghan female judges who had to flee their home country after the Taliban seized control, says a U.K. lawyer who helped get them out.

They dedicated their careers to bringing abusers, drug traffickers and terrorists to justice in Afghanistan, Helena Kennedy told As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal. Now that the Taliban has released thousands of inmates, those women have targets on their backs. 

"They were trying to make the world a safer place for all of us. Because, you know, terrorism, the exporting of heroin, all of that stuff is so destructive in our world," said Kennedy, a human rights lawyer and member of the U.K. House of Lords.

As the director of the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), Kennedy helped facilitate the escape of 104 Afghan female judges, prosecutors and their families after Kabul fell to the Taliban earlier this year.

Those women are now in Greece under temporary visas that expire on Dec. 24. If they don't find countries to take them in before then, they'll be forced to claim asylum and will be transferred to the country's notorious refugee camps.

"I need to get them out, and I'm begging Canada to be a friend to these women and to give them this opportunity of having another life," Kennedy said.

'In terror for their lives'

Kennedy says she started fielding calls and texts from female judges in Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban seized control of the country in August.

"Suddenly I got all these calls, and they were so desperate," she said. "They were women who were in terror for their lives, and they had good reason to be."

We're slowly, slowly getting the numbers down, but I am hoping that Canada will make an offer.- Helena Kennedy, International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute

Securing their escape was no easy feat. Kennedy and IBAHRI relied on donations from the public, expertise from charitable organizations evacuating people from Afghanistan, and anonymous contacts on the ground to arrange for the women and their families to travel first to safe houses. They were then transported by convoy to the airport in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan's fourth-largest city.

The women had to travel under cover of burkas. One woman, Kennedy says, hid her diplomas under her clothes as she was driven past Taliban checkpoints, because she couldn't bear to leave them behind. 

"Some of these women were … in their basements hiding because they'd had threats made on their own phones. But also members of their family had received threats and conveying messages to tell the women that they were to meet Allah shortly," Kennedy said.

U.K. human rights lawyer Helena Kennedy, pictured here in 2017, helped dozens of Afghan female judges escape the country now under Taliban rule. (Mark Milan/Getty Images)

In the end, she says she managed to get 104 people on two chartered flights out of the country to Athens, where she convinced Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou — herself a former lawyer and judge — to help grant them safe passage.

The women and their families are now living in hostels in Athens. Ireland, Iceland, Brazil and Australia have agreed to accept some of them, Kennedy said, but many still face uncertain futures. 

"They don't know what happens next," she said. "We're slowly, slowly getting the numbers down, but I am hoping that Canada will make an offer."

When Kabul fell to the Taliban, the federal government created a special immigration program for Afghans who worked for the Canadian government, as well as one for Afghans from vulnerable groups, "including women leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, persecuted religious minorities, LGBTI individuals, and family members of previously resettled interpreters."

Canada was gearing up for a federal election when Kennedy first started making inquires on behalf of the judges, she said. But now she's hopeful that Sean Fraser, the newly-minted minister of immigration, will step up.

Alexander Cohen, a spokesperson for Fraser, told As It Happens that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada cannot comment on specific cases, but the department "has been in contact with advocates representing a wide variety of Afghan refugees, including judges."

"As requests to support persecuted groups have increased dramatically since the fall of Kabul, Canada is working hard to assist as many vulnerable people as possible," Cohen said in an emailed statement. 

Canada has so far welcomed 4,300 Afghan refugees, Cohen said, and aims to fulfil its target of 40,000 over the next two years. 

"It's worth remembering the role that they played … in trying to build the sort of societies that we want to see around our world," Kennedy said.

"These are people, like the parliamentarians, that we really have to make an offer to, as a symbol to the world that this stuff matters."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Helena Kennedy produced by Kate Swoger. 

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