On Sunday, a group of young Afghan lawyers gathered at a Kabul hotel to hold a press conference on the importance of an independent legal profession and respect for the rule of law in Afghanistan. As they prepared to go to live, their plans were thwarted by two wagons of armed Taliban.
This is the latest in a series of efforts by the new regime to suppress the activities of the Independent Bar Association of Afghanistan (AIBA), an organization created in 2008 to oversee the licensing of new lawyers and advocate for the rule of law and social justice. On November 14, the Taliban cabinet decreed that the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) would become competent for the affairs of AIBA. On November 23, the AIBA offices in Kabul were stormed by armed Taliban who threatened staff and lawyers with violence before ordering them to leave and install a new president with questionable professional qualifications. . “The person appointed to head AIBA would be part of the Ministry of Justice but has no relevant experience,” according to a JURIST correspondent based in Kabul. These armed forces had apparently interpreted the Cabinet Order as indicating that the Ministry of Justice should have exclusive licensing authority, as well as control of AIBA’s extensive membership database and bank account.
In an effort to help AIBA, the International Bar Associationwho helped establish the beleaguered organization in 2008, appealed to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for his assistance in protecting the rights and independence of the Afghan legal community.
Driven by a desire to protect their profession and their colleagues, a group of AIBA members organized the press event on Sunday. The group included men and women who had studied law and had been admitted to the Afghan bar in the years before the US withdrawal in August. Their careers were launched at a time of expanding professional opportunities, as well as increasing gender equality in access to education and professional opportunities. Together, they hoped the Taliban might be receptive to their appeals about the importance of an independent legal profession, strong 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 hoped to convince of the seriousness of the rule of law.
Ingrid Burke Friedman, Editor-in-Chief of JURIST Features, spoke with Maruf Hashimi, spokesperson for the AIBA Advocates Group, about the press conference and her fears, not just for the lawyers’ safety Afghans and their families, but also for the fate of the country’s legal profession:
JURIST: What was the purpose of Sunday’s press conference? What message were you hoping to convey to the Taliban and the legal community?
Marouf Hasimi: The purpose of the press conference was to urge the Taliban government to reconsider its decision to integrate AIBA into the Ministry of Justice. Our goal is to regain the independence of AIBA and preserve its legal structure.
LEGAL: Can you tell us what happened on Sunday as you prepared to start the press conference?
Marouf Hasimi: We arrived at the venue at 8:30 am, having already completed all our preparations for the event.
We were waiting for guests to start arriving in the courtyard of the host hotel, when two wagonloads of armed men 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 the authorities had ordered them to shut us down, due, they said, to security threats.
We agreed to evacuate, but told them we needed to let our guests and the online audience know that the press conference had been cancelled. We entered the hall to deal with it, but the armed men followed us and forbade us to turn on any light, film or photograph anything. They made sure the electricity was turned off throughout the event space. They then proceeded to remove our professional robes, which we wore for the event, and then forced us all – against our objections – to let them search our phones and delete any photos or videos that had been taken or filmed on the premises. .
There were many lawyers massed outside and the armed men were trying to drive everyone out of the area. Some of the Taliban present wanted to get me and another lawyer into a private car, but they were distracted by the chaos around us. At this point, I encouraged everyone to disperse in hopes that no one would be hurt.
JURIST: Were you surprised by the reaction of the Taliban?
Marouf Hasimi: Yes, we were surprised. It’s within our rights to hold conferences like this, and to share our message, but their sudden arrival upset all those plans. Once they prohibited us from taking photos or recording videos, it became clear to us that the alleged security threat was nothing more than an excuse to cancel the conference. It just didn’t fit; if there had been a threat, why did they stop us from photographing and filming the documents inside the hall?
LEGAL: Do you have any security concerns in the aftermath of Sunday’s events?
Marouf Hasimi: Yes; as soon as we found out that they wouldn’t allow us to hold the press conference, we knew there were security issues. We have seen reports that we have been summoned to the Taliban controlled AIBA on several occasions, but because we are not confident that they will keep us safe, we stayed away. We want to continue to fight for the independence of AIBA, but at the same time, the safety of our members is the most important thing.
LEGAL EXPERT: What are some of the downsides of bringing AIBA into the Department of Justice?
Marouf Hasimi: The disadvantages of the AIBA decree are numerous:
- Many lawyers have chosen this profession precisely because it is non-governmental;
- The merger will cause AIBA to lose its status as an IBA Member Organization, thereby ensuring that AIBA will not benefit from the legal and technical assistance of the IBA. In the past, building the capacity of Afghan lawyers relied heavily on international assistance, so opportunities for capacity building are likely to drastically diminish;
- In many cases, a lawyer cannot diligently represent his client while diligently representing the interests of the government. In this regard, it would be a major obstacle for all lawyers to also serve as government agents;
- If AIBA becomes another government entity, it means that the government will control the judiciary, prosecutors and all other lawyers in all cases;
- In business dealings between foreign nationals and the Afghan government, foreign nationals would understandably be reluctant to hire government officials to represent them;
- Integrating AIBA into government will impact efficiency and reduce the availability of legal services;
- The government is obligated to provide impartial and trustworthy legal services to its citizens. The only way to guarantee this is to preserve the independence of AIBA.
JURIST: Do you have any hope that the Afghan Bar will regain its independence?
Marouf Hasimi: We are working to regain the independence of AIBA, but we are also deeply concerned about our safety, as well as that of our families and colleagues. We hope to find a way to share our ideas with the government, and at the same time we fear what will happen if they misinterpret our calls.
LAWYER: What can lawyers and law students outside of Afghanistan do to support your cause?
Marouf Hasimi: I greet any foreign lawyers who may read this and wish them all good health. We call on any organization with the power to do so to enter into negotiations with the Taliban government to encourage them not to deprive AIBA of its independence. We also welcome any other help on this. We simply encourage anyone interested in taking action not to lose sight of our concerns about the possible consequences of our actions under the Taliban regime.