These judges sent murderers to prison. When the Taliban freed them, their defendants were hell-bent on revenge

It was a summer's morning in Kabul, and Raihana Attaee was playing with her baby boy when she received a chilling death threat over the phone.

It was from a man she had sentenced to prison just two months earlier for torturing and killing his wife.

"He belonged to the Taliban and his voice was full of horror," Judge Attaee told the ABC.

"He told me, 'I have power now. I can find you anywhere that you are. I can do anything to you when I find you'."

As the only female judge at the Primary Court of Elimination of Violence Against Women in Nangarhar, Judge Attaee had imprisoned terrorists, rapists and murderers.

But when the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August, the prisons were emptied and those who had been sent to jail were out for revenge.

Around 250 women judges suddenly found themselves in mortal danger, with few places left to hide from the Taliban.

The Taliban went door knocking

The man making the death threats to Judge Attaee had tortured and murdered his wife after discovering she owned a mobile phone.

After killing her, he put a noose around her neck to make it look like she had taken her own life.

"He had already said at sentencing, 'what I do to my own wife, I can do it to you'," she said.

"I was thinking when that phone call came, when he found me, when he killed me, who will take care of my son and other members of my family?"

Three of the judges who found themselves in mortal danger when the Taliban freed inmates from prisons.(ABC News: Andrew Greaves)

The 31-year-old judge said she received a series of death threats from the man before deciding to flee Nangarhar for the capital, Kabul.

"He told me he had gotten all my information from the court, including my ID," she said.

While in Kabul she moved house at least five times, attempting to evade him.

But Judge Attaee was advised that the Taliban were closing in on her.

"My colleague called me and said just leave Kabul, go to another province or hide somewhere else," she said.

"It was so, so scary for me. I was afraid because of my little son."

More than 800 kilometres away in Herat Province, Judge Arezoo Amini was facing similar horrors.

She had presided over more than 1,000 family court decisions and was now in the sights of disgruntled members of the Taliban who had been forced into divorce for abusing their wives.

Judge Amini says the Taliban came looking for her at her house after she fled.(Supplied)

"Someone called me and said, 'you took my wife from me and now she has married someone else, so I will not let you live anymore. I will kill you'," she told the ABC.

After the threats continued, she fled her home with her husband and three children.

"After a few days, my brother went to my home to get something for me," she said. 

"One of the neighbours stopped him and said: 'Tell Miss Arezoo not to come to the house, a Talib [Taliban foot soldier] came searching for her.'

"The neighbour said he was carrying a mobile phone with a photo of me inside it and was asking, 'Does anyone know where she is?'

"He even took out a knife and threatened our neighbours."

With the Taliban closing in on the judges, many feared it would not be long until they were killed.

Donors, a baroness, and a chartered jet

Baroness Helena Kennedy is not your archetypal member of the UK House of Lords.

Raised in a tenement in working-class Glasgow, she has been fighting for women's rights and civil liberties since she was a law student in London in the late 1960s.

Baroness Helena Kennedy hatched the escape plane to get the female judges out of Afghanistan.(ABC News: Andrew Greaves)

As the director of the Institute of Human Rights for the International Bar Association (IBA) Baroness Kennedy has become a powerful voice for the pioneers of Afghanistan's female legal fraternity, and her recent advocacy for the Uyghurs has seen her banned from entering China.

"I was suddenly receiving these messages from women absolutely terrified out of their lives, saying, 'please help me,'" she told the ABC.

"It became clear that war had been declared on the women who had dared to sit in judgement on men. Remember last time around the Taliban stoned women to death.

"I started being haunted by it. And I felt that we had to do something."

A colleague had heard of Christians being evacuated by a US not-for-profit and Baroness Kennedy got in contact with a company that chartered flights.

"These planes cost around $US800,000 a piece. It was a lot of money. And so, I ended up having to raise $US2.2 million to get three planes."

Baroness Kennnedy found the money in a hurry through philanthropists such as Australian businessman Sir Michael Hintze.

A flight was chartered to take 375 people out of Afghanistan to the nation of Georgia.

The plan was that two flights would then take the women to Athens where Greece's President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, herself a former judge, had organised for them to have temporary residency.

Finding the money and chartering three planes was a big enough challenge. Organising safe passage for more than 100 women and their families through Taliban controlled areas to Mazar-i-Sharif airport seemed almost insurmountable.

Near-misses almost derail escape

Judge Amini was hiding out on a farm outside of Kabul when she got word of Baroness Kennedy's evacuation mission.

The first step to qualify for that flight was a dangerous one. She and her husband had to leave her safe place to fill out paperwork as part of the assessment process.

As the couple filled out the forms inside their car late one night, they were surrounded by the Taliban.

"Suddenly about 10 people came. I was so shocked I couldn't move," she said.

"They searched my husband and beat him, but fortunately the Taliban didn't find any documents.

"I had a burqa on and was fully covered and hid the documents and my phone inside."

The following day she heard that the Taliban were searching the neighbourhood where she and her family were hiding out.

She decided to destroy all the photos and documents that showed any evidence of her life as a judge, a role that she was immensely proud of.

"I can't explain the feeling. How I was feeling then, and how I am feeling right now remembering that moment," she said.

"I was afraid for myself, my family, my husband, my kids. I had no option. They were searching for documents on us.

"I deleted my professional background documents, my cases, all my achievements of seven years of professional life. I regret it now, but I did it for my family's safety."

Judge Nellab Hotaki was also risking her life to try and get on that evacuation flight.

Nellab Hotaki was a judge at a family law court in Afghanistan.(ABC News: Andrew Greaves)

In the days leading up to her escape, she tried to get money out of the bank.

As she joined the queue her name was called by a security guard reading a list of customers.

Another guard waiting nearby demanded she show him her ID.

Judge Hotaki knew why — she had sentenced the man to prison eight months earlier, and he must have wondered if she was the same Nellab Hotaki who had put him away.

"He was trying to see my ID card. I was fully covered, and he couldn't see me," she said. 

"My husband wouldn't allow him to see it and an argument started between the two of them.

"At that moment a person from the bank came out and handled the situation."

The pair escaped soon after.

Despite these near misses, the judges found their way onto buses with other evacuees and headed to the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, more than eight hours drive away from Kabul.

With their faces covered in burqas, none of those manning the Taliban checkpoints along the way worked out they were judges fleeing the country. The next step was getting everyone on the plane.

'Laughing and crying at the same time'

When the judges finally made it to Mazar, they were taken to a restaurant that had been converted into a safe house.

Gathered in that packed room were other women fleeing the Taliban, such as journalist Nilofar Moradi, entrepreneur and human rights activist Najia Raufi and radio broadcaster and human's rights activist Khatera Saeedi.

The women all had to sleep on the floor of the safehouse as they waited to go to the airport.(Supplied)

Four female MPs who had been unable to get out on previous flights joined them. They were part of a group of close to 400 evacuees.

After sleeping on the floor for two nights, they were transferred to the airport. There was joy among the fear and apprehension.

Activist Khatera Saeedi had to leave her husband and other male relatives behind as she fled Afghanistan with her mother.

"When I got on that plane, it was then that I had a sense of how big that operation was," she told the ABC.

"How difficult it would have been to manage that flight and collect all those people safely, put them all on a plane and bring them out of the country. It was a big achievement."

After the daring escape, the judges landed safely in Georgia.(Supplied)

Baroness Kennedy was on the other end of a phone line once more in London as they landed.

"I was laughing and crying at the same time," she said.

"It was such a combination of relief and total happiness that we got them through all those hurdles and that at last they were out."

The women have now been in Athens for two months awaiting resettlement. It's hard to put into words what they have left behind.

Afghanistan is now a country where people are so desperate to survive parents have had to sell one child to save another from malnutrition.

"I have colleagues left behind. When I talk to them, I just feel sorry and hopeless," Judge Attaee said.

"I ask that other countries and organisations please do not forget Afghanistan."

Baroness Kennedy with former appeal court judge Fawzia Amini who escaped Afghanistan.(Supplied)

The women are also mourning the loss of their professional lives, and the new Afghanistan they had been a part of where girls could go to school and women could go to university, have a career, and seek justice through the courts.

Safe in Athens, some still worry for their futures

In recent weeks some good news has trickled into the Athens hostels where the women are staying.

Judge Attaee and her family have secured permanent visas for New Zealand. Judge Hotaki has been told she will be able to resettle with her family in Australia.

"I can't explain how happy I was when I found out," she said. 

"For the last one and half months, I was not able to sleep at night because we did not have a clear future ahead. It's amazing."

But for others, the uncertainty continues. Lawyer Tajbegum Wahidi, who had a long history of prosecuting men who raped and killed women in Ghazni province, can't find a country that will take her.

Ms Wahidi has struggled to find a country to live in since she fled Afghanistan.(ABC News: Andrew Greaves)

After receiving a death threat in August from one of the men she had put in jail, she miscarried at five months.

She sobbed as she told the ABC of the grief of losing her unborn baby and the stress of leaving her family back home who could no longer rely on her income for support.

"I can't sleep at night. My family is under threat. I don't know what is going to happen and my future is unclear," she said. 

She is one of about 50 Afghan women waiting in Athens who have not been resettled in other countries. Their visas expired on Christmas Eve and their financial support is about to dry up.

Ms Wahidi has relatives in Australia, but the federal government has not yet accepted her application for residency.

Baroness Kennedy said Australia had agreed to take 20 Afghan women and their families.

The Department of Home Affairs would not confirm this figure, but said in a statement: "The arrivals and settlement of the emergency evacuation in Afghanistan is progressing."

"Australia stepped forward and I am grateful that they've done that," Baroness Kennedy said. 

"But of course, if there were any possibility of Australia taking a few more, I would be thrilled."

Judge Attaee said she hoped other countries could find room for her stranded colleagues like New Zealand had for her.

"These are educated people and they have energy," she said. 

"They are judges, they are defence attorneys, journalists and they wish to work and help their community to live the life that they wish.

"We can make a better future for our children and can build a community."


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