As the Taliban Hunts Prosecutors, Afghan and U.S. Lawyers Team Up to Bring Their Colleagues to Safety

Targeted for years, Afghan prosecutors were left behind when the Taliban returned to power. Twenty-nine have been killed since then.

A Taliban scurity personnel stands guard next to prisioners waiting for their release from the central prison in Kandahar on June 27, 2023. (Photo by Sanaullah SEIAM / AFP) (Photo by SANAULLAH SEIAM/AFP via Getty Images)
A Taliban security guard stands next to prisoners waiting for their release from the central prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on June 27, 2023. Photo: Sanaullah Seiam/AFP via Getty Images

When he took over as attorney general in 2016, Mohammad Farid Hamidi vowed to crack down on the corruption that had plagued Afghanistan’s political elites, including within his new office. For months, he spent his Mondays meeting with any resident seeking legal counsel, earning a reputation as the “people’s prosecutor.” And he increased the number of women on his staff of 6,000 prosecutors from under three percent to 23 percent, before resigning amid political pressure in early 2021.

But his greatest challenge came six months later, when the Taliban seized back control of Afghanistan, two years ago this month. Since then, the Taliban have shut down the attorney general’s office and freed thousands of people who had been locked up, sending many former prosecutors into hiding. Targeted by the people they helped convict, some 29 prosecutors have been killed in the last two years, including three in the last two weeks.

“They were released,” said Hamidi, referring to scores of individuals his office had prosecuted, including many Taliban members, “and they are looking to find the prosecutors who tried them.”

All along, Hamidi has been trying to help his former colleagues; last month, with the U.S. Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, or APA-US, he helped launch the “Prosecutors for Prosecutors” campaign, which aims to get 1,500 Afghan prosecutors and their families to safety. APA-US and its Afghan counterpart, now operating in exile, have partnered with a number of organizations to raise $15 million to fund nongovernmental organizations that can relocate them to safe countries. Their partners include Jewish Humanitarian Response, the International Association of Prosecutors, and No One Left Behind, as well as a number of local district attorneys across the U.S.

“They stood for law and justice in Afghanistan for the past 20 years, shoulder to shoulder with the international community, with the people of Afghanistan, with the government of Afghanistan,” Hamidi told The Intercept. “Withdrawal from Afghanistan shouldn’t be a withdrawal from all promises, all ethical obligations, human rights obligations.”

More than 1.6 million Afghans fled the country in the last two years, with more than 100,000 resettling in the U.S. In the chaotic weeks following the dramatic collapse of the former Afghan government, foreign states and international organizations helped evacuate Afghans they had worked with, prioritizing those they deemed at the highest risk, including women activists, human rights defenders, and members of the former government and military.

No such priority group was carved out for Afghan prosecutors, who also did not qualify for the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa program, reserved for Afghans who had been employed by the U.S. government. While some prosecutors were able to flee through personal connections, thousands were left behind.

There was “no plan” by U.S. officials to get prosecutors to safety, Hamidi said, even as they had been targets of attacks for years. “They knew many people like prosecutors would be in danger. And there was no plan or program to provide them any opportunity to be included in any of these categories, SIV, P-1, P-2,” he said, referring to priority refugee status for certain categories of vulnerable Afghans.

That makes no sense to David LaBahn, president of APA-US, which had helped train Afghan prosecutors. “Here are the prosecutors who put terrorists and drug smugglers in prison — who have now been released from prison — and because they didn’t have a government contracting card, they are at the bottom of the list,” LaBahn told The Intercept. “It defies all logic.

“They’re being hunted right now,” he added. “People who are begging for their lives and who feel completely deserted.”

In this photograph taken on October 2, 2017 Afghan Attorney General Farid Hamidi takes part in a petitioners' meeting at the Attorney General's office in Kabul.
Since taking office in April 2016, Attorney General Farid Hamidi has been throwing open his doors to the public every October 28 in an effort to build confidence in the law and root out venal officials. Hamidi, a former member of the country's human rights commission, begins receiving the first of dozens of petitioners in his office at 8:00 a.m. 
 / AFP PHOTO / WAKIL KOHSAR / To go with 'Afghanistan-unrest-justice-crime,FOCUS' by Allison Jackson        (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Afghan Attorney General Mohammad Farid Hamidi takes part in a petitioners’ meeting at the attorney general’s office in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Oct. 2, 2017.

Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

An Ongoing Emergency

Hamidi was in the U.S. when Kabul fell. He immediately knew that years of his work would be wiped out, that he wouldn’t be able to return home, and that the lives of thousands of his colleagues were at risk. As soon as the Taliban seized the capital, he started writing to all the international agencies that had worked alongside his office over the years, including the United Nations and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

USAID and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul had funded his office’s initiative to train 250 female prosecutors, but now that those women were in hiding, he heard nothing from them. “They financed this program, and we implemented it. I sent letters to USAID and mentioned this, but no response,” he said. “The U.S. government, U.S. entities, the U.S. people — they have a responsibility to support the people of Afghanistan and those people who are at risk and in danger because of their work, because of their dedication to law and justice.”

The U.S. government, he stressed, did “nothing” for them.

That’s despite the fact that Afghan prosecutors had been responsible for jailing thousands of Taliban members, as well as narcotraffickers and members of other extremist groups and organized crime networks who helped fund the Taliban insurgency. Hamidi said that some 50,000 Taliban and Islamic State members were imprisoned between 2001 and 2021. “The fight against terrorism was in two main areas: One was in the battlefield, and the other was when the Taliban were arrested and handed over to the attorney general’s office for investigation,” he said. “Many ministers, commanders, governors who are now holding positions of power in the country were in jail at a time or another.”

Asked about Hamidi’s outreach to the U.S. government, a spokesperson for the State Department wrote in an email to The Intercept that “the Biden-Harris Administration continues to demonstrate its commitment to the brave Afghans who stood side-by-side with the United States over the past two decades.” The spokesperson added that the agency “does not comment on who is in the refugee processing pipeline due to privacy and protection reasons” but that the resettlement of eligible Afghans is one of its “top priorities.” USAID did not respond to a request for comment.

Over the last two years, the plight of Afghans in the country and outside has largely fallen off the news cycle as fatigue and new conflicts have replaced global shock at the country’s unraveling. That indifference stands in stark contrast with the sense of emergency that still dominates countless Afghans’ lives. APA-US continues to field desperate requests for help from dozens of former prosecutors still in Afghanistan. Through its Afghan counterpart, the group compiled a verified list of 3,850 former prosecutors and other staff and shared it with U.S. officials. But because there’s no visa path available to them in the U.S., the groups are looking to fund private efforts to relocate the prosecutors and help them secure employment. Already, some U.S.-based prosecutors have answered the call, promising help with relocation efforts and jobs for Afghan prosecutors arriving in the U.S.

“People are being killed, and there appears to be no action, or limited action, by those who should be acting.”

For the time being, LaBahn stresses, the need is urgent and short-term.

“People are being killed, and there appears to be no action, or limited action, by those who should be acting,” he said. “What we’re trying to do right now is just get people to safety, get them food, and get them housing, and then we can worry about the process of what country will ultimately protect them.”

Residents and security personnel stand at the site following gunmen shot dead two Afghan women judges working for the Supreme Court, in Kabul on January 17, 2021. - Gunmen shot dead two Afghan women judges working for the Supreme Court during an early morning ambush in the country's capital on January 17, officials said, as a wave of assassinations continues to rattle the nation. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP) (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

The scene after gunmen fatally shot two Afghan women judges working for the Supreme Court, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Jan. 17, 2021.

Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

One Prosecutor’s Escape

Najia Mahmodi was one of the women Hamidi hired into the attorney general’s office. She was born before the U.S. toppled the Taliban in 2001 and remembers seeing them beat women in the street when she was a child. But she was part of a generation of Afghan women who grew up during a time of opportunity. She received a law degree from the American University of Afghanistan. While a student, she survived a Taliban attack that killed 16 of her classmates. Later, she became chief prosecutor for crimes against women and survived other attacks near the prosecutor’s office. Her role involved investigating crimes such as rape, battery, forced marriage, and prohibiting a woman or girl from going to school or work. Many of those offenses were criminalized under the U.S.-backed former Afghan government, and the Taliban rescinded the laws when it returned to power.


What the United States Owes Afghan Women

As the Taliban seized province after province two summers ago, Mahmodi’s 3-year-old son would greet her when she came home from work with updates on which part of the country had fallen. Her friends and family urged her to leave Afghanistan, knowing she would be an immediate target. She delivered her second child, a daughter, just as the Taliban advanced on Kabul, choosing to have an early C-section because she wasn’t sure she would be able to access a hospital when the time came. Thousands of the men her office had helped convict were being freed, and she began to have nightmares about them.

On August 15, she went into hiding. For 10 days, she tried to make sure her toddler wouldn’t be too loud because she feared being discovered and handed to the Taliban. Meanwhile, she reached out to all her foreign contacts for help. Eventually, she got a call back and was told to head to the airport immediately, instructed to wave her phone at U.S. Special Forces so they would recognize her. Her contact told her that the soldiers would shoot toward the crowd to disperse those around her but that she should not run and keep walking toward them.

Hours later, she was in Qatar with her children; she eventually resettled in the U.S., where she is enrolled to start a master’s in law program in the fall.

After leaving, she was able to rile up international support to get some of her colleagues from the elimination of violence against women division of the attorney general’s office moved to Pakistan through a private sponsorship. But only women benefited from that initiative, and many more remain in Afghanistan. They are struggling to survive without jobs in a country where more than 15 million people are currently facing food insecurity. Passports are hard to obtain, particularly for those who are trying to hide their identity.

“They are in constant fear for their lives,” Mahmodi said. “They are a target.”

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