U.K. baroness rescues Afghan female judges threatened by prisoners they convicted

One September morning, Baroness Helena Kennedy was at home in North London when she received an urgent call from a female Afghan judge. Kennedy, a distinguished human rights lawyer and a member of the U.K. House of Lords, was engineering the escape of the judge along with another 25 of her colleagues and their families.

One of the women was refusing to leave without her husband, who was denied boarding because of his expired passport.

With her noble title of baroness, the judge initially thought Kennedy was related to the Queen and could pull some strings. Kennedy told her: “If you leave now and take the children I will do everything in my power to get him out.” But could she guarantee it? “No,” she told the judge. The whole family stayed behind. Kennedy put the phone down and wept, as did the judge who stood near a chartered plane at Afghanistan’s Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport with eight empty seats.

For years, these women protected the rule of law in Afghanistan and did so knowing their would-be assassins would be rewarded by the Taliban, who handed out rewards and prizes for anyone who killed them, even before they regained power. As the Taliban took back control and prisoners were released, the female judges and prosecutors involved in their convictions began receiving calls delivering this message: “We’re coming after you.”

From her home office in London, Kennedy explained where the funds came from and how she, and her small team at the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, became a sort of hub for evacuations.

While the baroness is not royalty, she is connected. One of the biggest donations came from a Canadian philanthropist in the sum of $300,000. A U.K. celebrity also contributed a significant amount but neither wanted their name publicized. Each of the three planes the baroness chartered cost US$700,000. On the ground, money also helped: Kennedy bought a sheep as a wedding gift for the daughter of a Taliban leader, a gesture of goodwill that facilitated safe passage.

‘WE HAD TO ERASE OUR LIVES’

The judges and the lawyers had to travel from safe houses to the Mazar-i-Sharif airport in the north of the country.

There are people she can’t name, “nameless, wonderful people on the ground, who provided a level of security,” she said. To avoid problems at checkpoints, the women were told to delete all photos of themselves wearing their black judges’ robes. “We had to erase our lives,” one told me. But there are certain things they couldn’t let go of. Judge Zahra Haidi, age 28 and pregnant with her first child, recounted how she hid her phone in her bra and sat on her diploma in the car, believing the Taliban wouldn’t ask her to get out. They didn’t.

The scheme even involved negotiating with air traffic control and, eventually, securing the permission to allow people to leave the country with only their identity card. It meant the family who stayed behind on the first flight were able to board the second.

Destination? Athens. Crossing Iranian airspace proved to be too complicated – instead they found a circuitous route via Georgia.

Kennedy convinced the president of Greece, herself a former lawyer and judge, to let them in. She states with no hesitation that she’s “begged, borrowed and stolen” to get the money to pay for their accommodation.

“This is Schindler’s List time,” Kennedy said. “I hope a time will come when I can say ‘These are the people who helped me’,” she added.

With the Canadian election now over and a new cabinet in place, she hopes that help will come from Canadian Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, who has been handed a list of all the women assisted by Kennedy, awaiting resettlement.

“Canada has a great tradition of responding to humanitarian crises,” she explained, “I’m really pleading with the Canadian government to take some of my families.”

Ireland, Iceland, Germany and Australia are among the countries who’ve already raised their hands.

After multiple flights, there are now nearly 80 women and their families – more than 400 in total -- in Athens, hoping a country will permanently open its doors. But those are just the ones Kennedy and her team assisted.

NGOs and other individuals who also lobbied the Greek government have managed to bring in hundreds more, including female MPs who’ve found a safe haven at the Melissa Network, an organization for migrant and refugee women based in Athens.

It’s believed that 40 per cent of the female representation in the Afghan parliament is now in Greece. While they wait for a country to take them, their meetings at the Melissa Network centre on the creation of what they call a parallel parliament.

“We want to create an organization so that we can advocate and work for the Afghan women in Afghanistan, under the name of Afghan MPs,” Shagufa Noorzai tells me. She’s the youngest MP in the Afghan parliament.

“Listen, you don’t get women who have got professions like this, who aren’t married to men who are themselves (…) also judges, lawyers and professionals,” Baroness Kennedy said bluntly, “these are people who would contribute greatly to any nation that took them in.”

The Greek government says they’d like to see them settled before Christmas.

Baroness Kennedy says there’s one more flight she’d like to organize, but is missing the funds.

“This is the real thing, and we have to help these people.”