Evacuating women judges from Afghanistan: Interview with her Honour Judge R C Tupman

Mahmud Hawila

15 August 2023 was the second anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Barrister Mahmud Hawila, a member of the Bar Association’s Diversity and Equality Committee, interviewed her Honour Judge Tupman of the New South Wales District Court about her role in the evacuation of women judges from Afghanistan.

Mahmud Hawila (MH): How, as a Sydney judge, did you come to be involved in the urgent evacuations of women judges in Afghanistan?

Judge R C Tupman (RT): Well, I am also the Secretary/Treasurer of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ). After 2001 the US and its allies encouraged the appointment of women to the judiciary broadly and established specialist courts to deal with violence against women and children. The IAWJ conducted training and capacity building courses for Afghan women judges in the US and Afghanistan. In about 2019 we were asked again to assist the women judges in Afghanistan when the security situation began to deteriorate. We started to hear of death threats against women judges in Afghanistan from the Taliban, criminals, and terrorist organisations like ISIS. Threats of violence against women judges were ramping up. In January 2021 two Afghan women judges were assassinated in the streets of Kabul on their way to court. The women judges in Afghanistan started to ask for help. The Afghan Women Judges Association (AWJA) was re-formed and sought re-affiliation with the IAWJ, which occurred in March 2021. IAWJ International President, NZ Supreme Court Justice Susan Glazebrook, established a committee with a core of seven members to work towards assisting them. The core seven were Susan, two women judges from the US, one from Canada, one from the UK, one from Spain and me from Australia.

In May 2021 there was an IAWJ Biennial in Auckland, largely virtual because of COVID travel restrictions, where two senior Afghan women judges spoke virtually from Kabul. Their contributions were very moving and confronting as they told us about the issues and threats specifically being faced by women judges. But they didn’t ask to be evacuated at that stage. What they asked mainly was, ‘Please don’t forget the women judges of Afghanistan’. And so, Justice Glazebrook gave a personal undertaking, on behalf of the IAWJ, that we would not forget the women judges of Afghanistan and we continue to keep that promise.

The security situation continued to deteriorate, but even up until 15 August 2021 the women judges were not asking to leave. They kept saying, ‘We are proud to have been appointed as judges in Afghanistan, especially as Afghan women. We were asked to do a job. To work as judges. To apply the rule of law, and to do so without corruption. We’re very proud to have done that, and we don’t want to leave and have all our hard work undone.’ This was even with the background that two had been murdered only a few months before and violence and threats were increasing.

Then, on 15 August 2021, the Taliban took over in Kabul. All the women judges were sacked immediately. They all had to walk out of their courts to go home, in fact to face an existential threat, and we had to step up and do something. We started a 24/7 open Zoom session among the seven of us to monitor the situation and be available for contact with the judges. We then all asked ourselves, ‘What do we do now?’

MH: So all this is happening in the moments after the Taliban takeover. I remember seeing heartbreaking scenes on TV of people trying to get into the airport to escape, as US planes took off overhead. Was it at this point that you and the remaining six IAWJ judges decided to try to help the evacuation of the Afghan women judges?

RT: We didn’t really think that was what we would ever do. We were just seven judges and had no experience in rescue operations whatsoever. But it seemed that it was the only way that we could offer practical support to the Afghan women judges, who were our members and who were at risk.

By that stage, most did want to leave because there were threats being made to women judges by the Taliban and other terrorists and criminals who they had sentenced after the Taliban threw open the prison doors. Some of these former prisoners were going door-to-door looking for the women judges. At particular risk were those who had worked in the family courts, the specialist domestic violence courts, the terrorism courts and on military bases like Bagram where many AWJA members worked.

We were watching the developments on TV, just like you, but were also on the 24/7 Zoom listening to events firsthand. We could hear gunshots near the airport gates. We were making contact with anyone who would listen to try to get visas to safe destinations, including Australia, and even when that was successful, trying to help them through the crush at the airport gates to get onto the last evacuation flights that left before most flights stopped after the suicide bomb on 26 August 2021 and the US eventually pulled out on 31 August 2021. This open Zoom session became critical.

The other practical thing that we did was to compile a database of all the AWJA members and their families with passports and other ID details. This has been vital in facilitating evacuations. If for example an NGO advised they had some seats on an evacuation flight, this database was invaluable in allowing us to send a list immediately to add to a flight manifest. I spent hours doing that at very unsociable hours of the early morning, becoming known as the Committee’s ‘list queen’. Very useful to know how to use Excel Spreadsheet!

This phase, which was quite chaotic and involved seven women judges in six different time zones having little sleep, surviving on coffee and adrenaline and making ad hoc decisions of the type we never thought we would have to make, and working at the same time, continued until after 31st August when all evacuation flights from Kabul ended.

The next phase was the regroup phase. The International Bar Association (IBA) Human Rights Institute organised and funded two charter flights out of Mazari- Sharif in Northern Afghanistan. Jewish Humanitarian Relief (JHR – previously known as the Aleph Institute) also provided funding for that and flights to the UAE.

We were offered seats on those flights which also evacuated other human rights workers, including female prosecutors. The IAWJ, and the judges for whom we were able to secure those seats, will always be grateful for that collaboration. It was complicated and involved people being transported from Kabul by road, which was dangerous, crossing Taliban checkpoints and similar. We were being given security briefings to pass on – not the sort of thing I ever expected to be doing as a Sydneybased District Court Judge. Eventually two charter flights arrived in Athens in October 2021 and two to the UAE around the same time. Three of our judges and their families, for whom I had obtained Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) with lots of help from others in Australia, were on those flights to Athens, as were many other women judges, ten of whom were also granted TPVs while in Athens. The UAE took many of our judges until final visas could be obtained, in some cases for much longer than we anticipated. One of the last of those judges arrived in Australia as recently as 24 September 2023.

The International Commission of Jurists Australia (ICJA) also assisted the evacuation of three judges to Australia via Pakistan. By March 2022 we had 17 judges and their families in Melbourne and Sydney, and they are all now well settled in Australia. Many other judges were accepted from Athens and the UAE to other parts of the world.

MH: How did it feel to finally welcome some of the Afghan women judges in Melbourne airport?

RT: We couldn’t welcome the first three immediately because they went to Howard Springs for COVID quarantine, but they then went to Melbourne. I met them in person in December 2021 in Melbourne and it was just extraordinary. It was very emotional to meet the people who I’d only ever spoken to on WhatsApp calls, Zoom and Signal, often when they were in very stressful and desperate situations. The Australian Association of Women Judges (AAWJ) has set up a partner judge system, with an AAWJ judge allocated as the partner to each Afghan judge. We have become friends. In Sydney and Melbourne the AAWJ has arranged many functions and visits including to our courts, helped with access to rental accommodation, worked with other organisations to help their children with school enrolments, assisted with access to English lessons and, in the future, ongoing tertiary qualifications, helped the women with such things as driving lessons and swimming lessons, and for us in the AAWJ learned a lot about delicious Afghan food!

There are now 19 judges and their families here in Australia who all now have permanent residency. We have even had welcome additions with four babies being born, two to the judges and two being grandchildren.

MH: Having now spent so much time with the Afghan judges, what did you find most notable about them?

RT: The most notable thing is their commitment to their profession, how proud they were to have been women judges in a place like Afghanistan and their grace in courage when their worlds crashed completely after 15 August 2021. They are just so strong. And they are sad because they know that they are never likely to be able to do it again. But they’re very grateful for what they have in Australia, and they’re just so committed to making every step a positive one. So that’s what I found most notable about them.

I’m also so impressed by how their whole families are just so committed to succeeding. They are fantastic additions to Australia. It is hard to be a refugee and each of them has given up everything: property, employment, money, status, and often other family members. Most of them were forced to live on some form of social security, at least for a while. They are having to learn a new language which is so different to Farsi/Dari. They are mostly living in housing that is nothing like the residences they lived in while they were judges in Afghanistan. But they’re just wonderful and so terribly generous, especially with that wonderful Afghan food. They are a force for good and so very positive.

MH: How many Afghan women judges remain who wish to be evacuated?

RT: This topic is so important. There are 47 judges remaining in Afghanistan who are asking us daily for help to leave. This was from a total of 252 women judges who were all sacked on 15 August 2021. So far the IAWJ has helped 137 judges and their families to leave and resettle permanently all over the world. In addition to those in Australia there are 36 in Canada, 35 in the USA, 27 in Germany, 17 in the UK, 10 in Ireland, 9 in Spain, 6 in NZ and 4 in France, and a few scattered in other parts of the world.

There are also 20 who have been evacuated to Pakistan as a sort of halfway house waiting for visas to come through, including some hoping for their visas to Australia and whom we are supporting. Pakistan is not the safest place. The borders are often closed, residence visas need to be renewed with associated costs, there’s a degree of harassment of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and, of course, you know the political situation in Pakistan can be unstable. We have had extraordinary support from JHR in the US right from the early evacuation days and they are currently providing financial support to our judges in Pakistan. However, the stipends are small, both JHR and the IAWJ are running out of funds, and we don’t know for how much longer we are going to have to support our judges before they can be moved to their final destinations.

Afghanistan of course is even more difficult and the situation for our judges there deteriorates daily. There are often security raids on parts of Kabul, and they are at risk if they are identified as former women judges. We remain in contact with all of them and pass on security information to try to keep them safe.

So, we continue and don’t forget. The evacuation efforts are still ongoing, and we have been trying to keep up the momentum, but it has become difficult. I continue to advocate for visas to Australia for some of the judges who have applications lodged and have family ties, and we are fortunate to have the support of the ICJA in this advocacy. We are hoping to hit 20 soon and who knows after that!

MH: IAWJ’s role in evacuating the Afghan women refugees was recognised earlier this year when it was awarded the prestigious Bolch Prize for the Rule of Law, and the inaugural DLA Piper Pro Bono LeadHer award a few months later. What did it mean for you to see IAWJ recognised in this way?

RT: It was extremely important. The key thing that we must do is to keep the spotlight on the plight of Afghan women judges. I mean, there are unfortunately many victims of disasters and catastrophes in the world who deserve advocacy and support, but since day one the only organisation advocating solely for Afghan women judges has been the IAWJ. Of course, we have had assistance from so many others, but it is up to the IAWJ to keep this issue alive and the good thing about receiving those awards is that it does keep this very important issue in the public eye.

I hope this IAWJ committee will soon end, and I will, from then on, only speak to my committee colleagues on a social basis. But that cannot happen until all those women judges who want to leave Afghanistan are out. Justice Susan Glazebrook made a commitment that we would not forget the women judges of Afghanistan and we will not. As our Spanish committee member says in closing every email, ‘We continue’. BN

Mahmud Hawila

Black Chambers