On Sunday, a group of young Afghan lawyers gathered in a Kabul hotel to hold a press conference about the importance of an independent legal profession and respect for the rule of law in Afghanistan. As they prepared to go live, their plans were thwarted by two carloads of armed Taliban.
This was the latest in a series of efforts by the new regime to crack down on the activities of the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association (AIBA), an organization established in 2008 to oversee the licensing of new lawyers, and to champion the rule of law and social justice. On November 14, the Taliban Cabinet decreed that the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) would gain jurisdiction over AIBA affairs. On November 23, the AIBA offices in Kabul were taken over by armed Taliban who threatened the staff and lawyers who were present with violence before ordering them to leave and installing a new president with questionable professional qualifications. “The person appointed as the new AIBA head is said to be part of the Ministry of Justice but has no relevant experience,” according to a Kabul-based JURIST correspondent. These armed forces had apparently interpreted the Cabinet decree to indicate that the MOJ should have sole authority over licensing, as well as control of the AIBA’s extensive member database and bank account.
In an effort to assist the AIBA, the International Bar Association, which had helped establish the besieged organization back in 2008, has appealed to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for assistance with protecting the rights and independence of Afghanistan’s legal community.
Driven by a desire to protect their profession and their colleagues, a group of AIBA members organized Sunday’s press event. The group comprised men and women who had studied law and been called to Afghanistan’s bar in the years leading up to the US withdrawal in August. Their careers had been launched during an era of expanding professional possibilities, as well as growing gender equality in terms of educational access and professional opportunities. Together, they hoped the Taliban might be receptive to their pleas regarding the significance of an independent legal profession, sound judicial licensing standards, and the many other qualities that had come to define the organization’s ethos.
They knew when the gunmen arrived that there would be no such receptivity, however. Three days later, most of these lawyers are in hiding from the very authorities they had hoped to convince of the gravity of the rule of law.
JURIST Features Editor Ingrid Burke Friedman spoke with Maruf Hashimi, spokesman for the AIBA advocates’ group, about the press conference and his fears, not only for the safety of Afghanistan’s lawyers and their families, but also for the fate of the country’s legal profession:
JURIST: What was the aim of Sunday’s press conference? What message did you hope to convey to the Taliban and the legal community?
Maruf Hashimi: The purpose of the press conference was to urge the Taliban government to reconsider its decision to fold the AIBA into the MOJ. Our goal is to regain the AIBA’s independence, and to preserve its legal structure.
JURIST: Can you tell us what happened on Sunday as you prepared to start the press conference?
Maruf Hashimi: We arrived at the venue at 8:30 am, having already finished all of our preparations for the event.
We were waiting for guests to begin arriving in the courtyard of the host hotel, when two carloads of gunmen arrived and told us to cancel the press conference and leave immediately. We tried to convince them to let us go ahead with the event, but they refused, saying that the authorities had ordered them to shut us down, due—they said—to security threats.
We agreed to evacuate, but told them we had to inform our guests and online audiences that the press conference had been cancelled. We went into the hall to take care of this, but the gunmen followed us in, and prohibited us from turning on any lights, or from filming or photographing anything. They made sure the electricity was turned off throughout the whole event space. They then began to pull off our professional robes, which we had been wearing for the event, and then forced all of us—against our objections—to let them search our phones and delete any photos or videos that had been shot or filmed on the premises.
There were many lawyers amassed outside, and the gunmen were attempting to chase everyone away from the area. Some of the Taliban present wanted to put me and one other lawyer into a private car, but they got distracted by the chaos all around us. At that point, I encouraged everyone to disperse in hopes that no one would be harmed.
JURIST: Were you surprised by the Taliban’s reaction?
Maruf Hashimi: Yes, we were surprised. It is within our right to hold conferences such as this one, and to share our message, but their sudden arrival disrupted all of these plans. Once they prohibited us from taking any photos or recording any videos, it became clear to us that the supposed security threat was nothing more than an excuse to cancel the conference. It just didn’t add up; if there had been a threat, why did they prevent us from photographing and filming the materials inside the hall?
JURIST: Do you have security concerns in the aftermath of Sunday’s events?
Maruf Hashimi: Yes; as soon as we discovered that they would not allow us to hold the press conference, we knew there were safety concerns. We have seen reports that we have been summoned to the Taliban-controlled AIBA several times, but because we are not confident that they will ensure our security, we have stayed away. We want to continue fighting for the independence of the AIBA, but at the same time, the safety of our members is the most important thing.
JURIST: What are some of the disadvantages of having the AIBA folded into the Ministry of Justice?
Maruf Hashimi: There are many disadvantages of the AIBA decree:
- Many lawyers have chosen this profession precisely because it is non-governmental;
- The merger will cause the AIBA to lose its status as an IBA member organization, thus ensuring that the AIBA will not benefit from the IBA’s legal and technical assistance. In the past, capacity building among Afghan lawyers had relied to a significant degree on international assistance, so capacity-building opportunities will likely diminish considerably;
- In many cases, a lawyer cannot zealously represent his or her client while at the same time zealously representing the interests of the government. In this regard it would be a major hindrance for all lawyers to also serve as government agents;
- If the AIBA becomes another government entity, that means the government will control the judiciary, the prosecutors, and all other lawyers in all cases;
- In commercial cases between foreign nationals and the Afghan government, foreign nationals would be understandably reluctant to hire government agents to represent them;
- Folding the AIBA into the government will impact efficiency, and reduce the availability of legal services;
- The government is obliged to provide impartial, trustworthy legal services to its citizens. The only way to guarantee this is by preserving the AIBA’s independence.
JURIST: Do you have any hope that the Afghan bar association will regain its independence?
Maruf Hashimi: We are working to regain the independence of the AIBA, but we are also deeply concerned about our safety, as well as the safety of our families and our colleagues. We are hoping to find a way to share our insights with the government, and at the same time we fear what will happen if they misinterpret our appeals.
JURIST: What can lawyers and law students outside of Afghanistan do to support your cause?
Maruf Hashimi: I greet all the foreign lawyers who may be reading this and I wish them all good health. We would ask any organization with the power to do so to enter into negotiations with the Taliban government in order to encourage them against stripping the AIBA of its independence. We would also invite any other help on this matter. We would just encourage anyone who is interested in taking action to not lose sight of our concerns about the possible consequences of our actions under Taliban rule.