Hundreds of Afghan prosecutors who received training over the last two decades from international law and justice organizations now face severe risks of retaliation and violence due to the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan.
“Within a few days of the Taliban taking over, I received several threatening calls from criminals they released from prison,” said Mahwash,* a woman prosecutor who ultimately fled Afghanistan, taking sanctuary in the US. “I was imprisoned at home for two months in fear and terror until we were transferred to Abu Dhabi by the body of 14 lawyers with a number of other prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers. From there, some of us were transferred to the US and some to European countries,” she said. Threats were not new to Mahwash; during her 16-year tenure as attorney general in the western province of Herat, she interrogated numerous criminals, including members of the Taliban, who were prosecuted for various acts of violence, such as bombings on cities, roads, bridges, and highways. In fact, threats she faced ahead of the collapse of the prior Afghan government initially compelled her to leave Herat for a position in the Attorney General’s Office in Kabul Province.
Mahwash’s career had flourished in the years between Taliban regimes. Over the past two decades, as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was established, international and private organizations worked tirelessly and invested significantly in promoting education for men and women alike at school and university levels, and in advocating for human rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, freedom of speech, and democracy. In alignment with the constitution and international norms, numerous laws and legal procedures were enacted with the assistance of international and national legal scholars and practitioners, contributing to the modernization of the legal system and the development of institutional reforms. Thousands of young, educated individuals, both men and women, joined the legal and judicial systems, receiving extensive academic legal education and invaluable experience, including visits to foreign countries to learn from different legal systems.
With the Taliban regaining power in Afghanistan, all the progress achieved over the last twenty years has been nullified. Prosecutors, as defined by the former Afghan government’s constitution, held the responsibility of investigating and prosecuting all criminal cases. Although part of the executive branch, they operated independently in accordance with the constitution, investigating individuals suspected of committing crimes, including high-ranking government officials.
Before the Taliban’s resurgence, these prosecutors dealt with a wide range of crimes, including suicide bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, armed robberies, drug trafficking, and human trafficking. They interrogated suspects face-to-face from the point of arrest and were responsible for charging and determining punishment, advocating for it in court until the execution of the court’s verdict on the accused.
In a statement last year, UN-appointed independent human rights experts warned that the ongoing collapse of the rule of law and judicial independence in Afghanistan constitutes a human rights catastrophe. Prosecutors, who previously investigated and prosecuted Taliban members under democratically-elected governments, now face grave risks.
“I investigated more than 50 cases involving Taliban fighters during the former regime. They know me well,” said Mohammed,* a prosecutor from the Northern province of Badakhshan, expressing his concern for his safety.
Last month, the Taliban’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, dismissed concerns about prosecutors’ safety in Afghanistan, calling claims by various organizations baseless. However, evidence and reports suggest a different reality, highlighting the precarious situation faced by prosecutors, including the alarming number of killings and threats they endure.
To address this dire situation, a group of US-based organizations has initiated a campaign titled Prosecutors for Prosecutors, with the aim of rescuing and relocating 1,500 Afghan prosecutors and their families who currently face dire threats in Afghanistan and neighboring countries. The goal is to provide support and aid to these prosecutors, who were trained to uphold the rule of law, as they grapple with security threats and poverty. Afghan prosecutors are calling on their international counterparts to support them, just as they were trained and supported in the past, to ensure truth and justice prevail in these challenging times.
“We were moved to launch this campaign because we were getting so many desperate pleas for help,” President and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys David LaBahn told The Media Line. “These are our colleagues. They were trained by the US and allied nations to uphold the rule of law. We can’t just leave them behind to be hunted and killed.”
“The Taliban released everybody [from jail] and said, ‘Go take your revenge with impunity,’” Executive Director of Jewish Humanitarian Response (JHR) Caroline Marks told The Media Line. “So, all the wife beaters, wife murders, rapists, former corrupt politicians, those who were arrested and detained for terrorism, they are the ones who, in addition to the Taliban, are also hunting them down. They essentially end up doing a service for the Taliban.”
Afghan prosecutors appeal to their international counterparts for the same support and training that has been provided over the years, aiding them in their pursuit of truth and justice. Their plea for assistance is vital, especially now as they grapple with security threats and poverty.
This interview was conducted by an Afghan legal scholar whose identity cannot currently be revealed due to threats to their security.
*Interviewees asked not to be identified by their full names due to concerns for their safety.