Interview: Attorney Saeeq Shajjan – ‘We Need to Raise Our Voices for Afghanistan’s Embattled Lawyers’ Features
Left: Life in Kabul under the Taliban, 2021 © WikiMedia (Tasnim News Agency); Right: Saeeq Shajaan, Shajjan & Associates
Interview: Attorney Saeeq Shajjan – ‘We Need to Raise Our Voices for Afghanistan’s Embattled Lawyers’

“Lawyers have the courage to speak up. Lawyers are educated. Lawyers are the people that can object to whatever dark policies [the Taliban] would like to implement. [A violent crackdown] is going to start very soon. It’s going to be really, really terrible, even compared to what we have seen so far,” warns Saeeq Shajjan, a corporate attorney from Kabul.

And he would know; Shajjan’s legal career has spanned the entirety of the 20-year-war and was bookended by the fall and subsequent rise of the Taliban.

Having fled to Toronto amid the chaos of the international military withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, the self-described lawyer in exile has been working tirelessly to help several dozen of his colleagues who remain trapped in Afghanistan, and in many cases, in the Taliban’s crosshairs.

Shajjan earned his law degree from Kabul University in 2003—his education having spanned the end of the old Taliban regime and the start of the war. He then went on to earn LL.M. degrees from Harvard Law School (US) and Savitribail Phule Pune University (India). In 2011, he established his own practice, Shajjan & Associates, a Kabul-based corporate law firm that has received numerous international awards, including several designations as a Band 1 firm by Chambers and Partners. Among the firm’s high-profile international clientele was the Canadian Government, which the firm had represented on a variety of matters for nine years leading up to the Taliban’s resurgence.

JURIST Features Editor Ingrid Burke Friedman interviewed Shajjan about the evolution and devolution of Afghanistan’s legal profession, the plight of his colleagues who remain trapped in Afghanistan, and his hopes that the international community will learn from its mistakes.

JURIST: How did the experience of being a lawyer in Afghanistan change during the course of the war?

Shajjan: A lot changed between 2001 and 2021, but in the past few weeks, things have regressed, and in many cases, returned to what the situation was like for lawyers 20 years ago.

Before the war, lawyers were not valued. Judges back then didn’t understand why they were even needed. They figured the defendants could represent themselves because they had a better understanding of what had caused a given criminal case or lawsuit than a lawyer would. And in some ways, this was true because back then, lawyers were not given access to case files. This changed dramatically after 2001, and judges came to truly value the work of lawyers.

For several years prior to the end of the war, under the presidency of Ashraf Ghani, there was some regression. [Ed: for context, Ghani has been broadly accused of various acts of corruption]. We saw a rise in corruption during that period because Ghani himself did not value the constitutional rights of the people, and had no qualms with violating these rights, and one way that played out was in the government’s tendency to launch frivolous lawsuits. Also during this period, there was a lot of executive interference within the judicial branch. But despite these backslides, the situation for lawyers remained better than it had been before 2001.

JURIST: And in what ways have matters regressed since the Taliban rose to power again?

Shajjan: First, as part of its takeover of the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association (AIBA), the Ministry of Justice has taken control of the issuance of legal licenses.

For years, we [lawyers in Afghanistan] had been working to develop a strong, independent bar. It had its weaknesses, and it wasn’t a resounding voice for all of Afghanistan’s lawyers, but it was certainly better than nothing, and AIBA was working hard to improve day by day.

Now that the Ministry of Justice has taken control of licensing, I’ve heard that the oral examination has nothing to do with law. They will ask questions about prayers—how you pray, or how you prepare for prayers. These questions are completely irrelevant to the practice of law, and yet they will have to be answered satisfactorily for lawyers to renew their licenses.

I’ve also heard many accounts of courtrooms descending into chaos. There was a case where a judge seemed to be siding with parties based solely on their appearances, and another case where a judge threw a paperweight at a lawyer, hitting him square on the mouth, because the judge didn’t see any reason for him to be involved in the case. I’m trying to gather as much information as I can to record some of these abuses, but I find that people are very afraid to speak [on the record] at this point.

JURIST: Over the past 20 years, educational and professional opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan appear to have improved. This has had an obvious impact in the legal sphere, with the appointments of many women judges, and large increases in the presence of women in law schools and the legal workforce. Can you tell us about some of the progress you saw with respect to equal opportunity efforts between 2001 and 2021?

Shajjan: During that period, there was continuous progress. Of course there were always problems for women, especially when it came to sexual harassment in the workplace, but progress was undeniably made in many areas. A lot of opportunities were created for women in Afghanistan. They were able to get an education, and a lot of them had the opportunity to study abroad. Female lawyers were able to appear before courts, representing clients as prosecutors and lawyers. Progress was slow, but it seemed to be inching forward nonetheless.

Then all of a sudden, the Taliban regained control, and now most women do not have the right to work, except in cases of menial labor. Despite the fact that nothing under Islamic law prohibits women from having professional careers, the Taliban has determined that they can’t do much more than clean the streets or polish shoes for a living, if anything.

JURIST: We know the Taliban has effectively banned women from working as prosecutors and judges, but questions remain about if and how they plan to resume the issuance of law licenses for women. Do you know anything about their plans in this regard?

Shajjan: As far as I know, so far the Ministry of Justice has not issued a single law license to a woman. I know of a couple of women who tried to get their licenses renewed recently, and they were denied. They were told that the authorities were waiting for a new policy pertaining to women lawyers, but I don’t think that policy is going to come.

Similarly, education has been essentially prohibited for women at this point. Again, they say they’re working on policies, but those policies are nowhere to be found, and meanwhile, months have passed. And a semester is a long time in the life of a student.

JURIST: You managed to get out of the country at the end of the war, and since you arrived in Canada, you’ve been working to help your colleagues escape as well. Will you tell us more about those efforts?

Shajjan: My colleagues are particularly vulnerable because we are a very well known firm, and we were very active in the community—sponsoring Moot Court competitions, equal education initiatives and more. We also had a lot of international clients, including the Canadian Government.

Because of this, a lot of my colleagues are now in hiding, moving from one safe house to the next, from one village to another, remaining out of sight from anyone who might expose them. They are going through extremely difficult times, and they are not often finding themselves unable to take care of their families. One of my colleagues couldn’t even take his sick mother to the hospital because the security situation was just too fraught.

The most troubling part is that all of my colleagues should be eligible for refugee status in Canada by virtue of the work we did for the Canadian Government over nearly a decade. We have all the documents in order to prove their status, and I have spoken with Canadian officials who have confirmed that they should be eligible, but the questions that remain are when and how they will be able to evacuate. These questions have been consuming all of my energy, and I hope to hear some good news soon.

JURIST: Like your colleagues, many Afghan citizens are now being targeted for persecution because of the work they did over the past two decades to assist Western governments and international organizations who were involved in the war and surrounding efforts. And so many of these people remain marooned in the country, in hiding. In your opinion, what should the international community be doing to help?

Shajjan: I don’t know why, but when it comes to Afghanistan, the international community never seems to learn from its mistakes.

First and foremost, all of these countries that were involved in the Afghanistan invasion and the related activities over the past 20 years need to develop evacuation plans. They made a lot of mistakes earlier on, like helping to evacuate many people who were neither eligible under any of the special immigration programs, nor were they in any sort of immediate danger.

Even since arriving in Canada, I’ve met a lot of Afghan people who did not face any imminent threat before being allowed to evacuate and resettle here; they aren’t being targeted for their professions, they don’t qualify for humanitarian parole—it’s not clear why they were chosen.

So the international community needs to find a better path forward to getting out the people who helped them over the past 20 years in exchange for the promise of a visa, and the people who are in imminent danger. That should be the priority.

JURIST: Given your efforts to help your colleagues and peers in these difficult times, what would you say to the lawyers and legal professionals who remain in Afghanistan, unable to leave, and fearful of persecution?

Shajjan: Ultimately, these people need to raise their voices—but now is not the right time for them to do that. They are in hiding, and being vocal would put them in grave danger. So we need to raise our voices for them. The international community needs to ramp up pressure on the Taliban to prevent persecution. We need to work on building a solid international platform to advocate for their rights.

For now, I think the lawyers in Afghanistan need to try to stay calm and keep a low profile. There is little they can do at the moment to instill change in Afghanistan, and that will remain the case unless and until there is international pressure on the government of the Taliban.

To learn more about this topic, check out our interview with lawyers from Canadian firm Cassels who are working to assist Saeeq Shajjan’s colleagues here, and dispatches from JURIST staff in Afghanistan here