By Karen Grisez
On an early morning in January 2021, two women judges in Afghanistan were assassinated in their car on their way to court. The other women judges, many of whom had tried or sentenced Taliban members, soon realized they were in serious danger and sought help from the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ). That May, the IAWJ, led by its President, Justice Susan Glazebrook of the New Zealand Supreme Court, formed an Afghan Women Judges Support Committee. Other committee members include Senior Judge Vanessa Ruiz of the DC Court of Appeals and IAWJ’s immediate past president, as well as judges from Australia, Canada, the UK and the US. The Support Committee began exploring ways to support its sister judges in peril. As Taliban control expanded and the Afghan government began to collapse, not only were the women judges stripped of their ability to practice their profession, but they began receiving threats, warning letters, and visits to their homes demonstrating that their lives were at risk. Family members were abducted and beaten. By late summer, as the fall of Kabul approached and danger to the women judges escalated, the IAWJ asked two major law firms to join in the effort to assist them on a pro bono basis.
Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP is widely recognized for its expertise in immigration law, particularly asylum, humanitarian protection and family reunification. Fried Frank undertook the representation of the IAWJ in its efforts to help the Afghan women judges and their families resettle in safe countries, with a focus on US law and procedures. At the same time, IAWJ recognized that the women judges would need individualized case screening, and in many cases direct representation in applications for protection in a range of countries. For this work, it turned to DLA Piper, who was able to mobilize the resources necessary to accomplish this daunting task.
Over the last year, the Fried Frank team has assisted IAWJ by preparing educational and training resources for the women judges and their individual pro bono lawyers. It has advocated with the US Departments of State and Homeland Security for favorable policy interpretations and procedures to create a viable path to safety for the judges and their extended family members wishing to resettle in the US, and counseled the IAWJ on legal issues confronting the women judges. As part of this process, the firm has submitted dozens of P1 refugee applications on behalf of IAWJ to the State Department, seeking referrals for refugee processing for the judges and their families.
During that same period, over 100 lawyers at DLA Piper have screened the cases of more than 200 women judges and their families. They have taken on direct representation of many of them, in the US or in other countries where they desired to resettle. In the US cases, this has included preparation for refugee interviews abroad, applications for humanitarian parole and asylum, and preparation of individualized statements detailing the threats to the safety of the judges, as well as compilation of information needed for the P1 applications. DLA has also assembled a network of other firms to take on cases for direct representation. These include Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, Baker Botts LLP, Blank Rome LLP, Brown Rudnick LLP, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, Vinson & Elkins LLP and Wilmer Hale.
After a year of effort, many judges have been resettled permanently in countries including Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Spain, UK, Canada and the US. A few have come to the Washington, DC area. Others still await processing in countries around the world, including UAE, Pakistan, Poland, Brazil and others. Going forward, the P1 refugee applications filed for the 70 judges still in Afghanistan offer them and their families a path to resettlement in the US once they are able to depart.
This unique rapid response collaboration among the IAWJ (a membership association and not a legal services provider) and the law firms involved has literally saved lives and started these women judges and their families on a new path – – to productivity as well as to safety. Some are studying, including with scholarships from major universities, or are seeking to transfer their credentials to practice law in their new homes. Others plan to enter affiliated professions. Some are focusing on the education and integration of their children into their new communities. One judge resettled in Texas just in time for the birth of her new baby in the coming days. We celebrate the collaboration of all involved to make these results possible. This is the power of pro bono!!
Karen Grisez is Pro Bono Counsel in the Washington office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP and a Washington Council of Lawyers Board Member.