The UK government has been accused of being “morally bankrupt” by a prestigious legal firm after a leaked email chain shows the Foreign Office has closed an inbox dedicated to helping Afghans flee the country.
An email from the Foreign Office, seen by The Independent, addressed to a lawyer helping female judges trapped in Afghanistan states “this mailbox is now closed” and no emails will be “read or responded to”.
It comes after The Independent recently revealed more than 200 women judges are stranded in hiding from the Taliban in Afghanistan, while campaigners warned they are at risk of being killed by the Taliban.
The Taliban has freed thousands of prisoners, including terrorists and senior al Qaeda operatives, with experts saying the judges responsible for sending many of the newly released criminals to jail are terrified for their safety now the inmates are free.
Lawyers at Mishcon de Reya, an eminent law firm, told The Independent they have launched legal action against the UK government after it rejected visa applications from 35 Afghan judges - who were both male and female - being hunted down by Taliban members.
“Closing the Foreign Office inbox is another example of the government washing their hands of the situation,” Maria Patsalos, a lawyer at the firm, told The Independent. “It is morally bankrupt of them. It is symptomatic of their lack of caring about the situation. They don’t care about the people who are left behind. They believe they can close up shop.”
Ms Patsalos, who is being supported by barristers from Garden Court Chambers, warned the female Afghan judges are in “imminent danger” and are being forced to move from “safe house to safe house on a daily basis”.
She added: “They don’t have any money because the Taliban has frozen their bank accounts. They are struggling to feed their children.
“The Taliban are knocking door to door to find them. Extended family members are beaten up until they tell them where they are. We have had kidnappings, one judge had two children kidnapped, but eventually had the two kids returned after extensive negotiations.”
The solicitor said shutting the Foreign Office email inbox demonstrates ministers deem the crisis in Afghanistan to be over as well as wrongly presuming the British public no longer care about this issue.
“This is not the case,” she said. “The average person on the street cares about what happens in Afghanistan. Evacuation planes are going from Afghanistan. None of them are going to the UK as no Afghan citizens have been granted visas from the UK. There is still a chance to help those who are suffering who are in danger on the ground.”
The “initial political will” shown when Downing Street said it would offer 5,000 Afghans sanctuary in the UK is “hot air”, she added.
Ms Patsalos, whose law firm represented Gina Miller in her case against the government over Brexit, warned even if the email inbox was closed for practical reasons, there is a dearth of evidence the UK government is actively helping Afghans at risk of death from the Taliban whom her legal firm believe “fits squarely within the rules” to be granted entry to the UK.
The judges “absolutely” should be permitted entry to UK via one of the government’s two official Afghan resettlement schemes, she added.
“The UK government has trained the judges up to help them deliver the rule of law on the ground and now they have evacuated troops and left people behind,” she added. “Despite their intrinsic links to the British justice system and their mentoring with British legal professionals, they have effectively been abandoned by the UK civil service.”
But a UK government spokesperson told The Independent: “We are continuing to work through the over 200,000 requests we have received to date and support continues to be available seven days a week, with dedicated civil servants supporting British and Afghanistan Nationals.
“We will continue to do all we can to secure safe passage to enable British nationals and eligible Afghans to leave the country. Our contact channels remain open for those seeking assistance.”
Afghanistan has roughly 250 female judges in total but a small number managed to escape in recent weeks.
A child of a female Afghan judge, who is currently in hiding in Afghanistan, said: “Please save my mother. We are in prison at home”.
Two female Supreme Court justices were shot dead by unidentified gunmen back in January, but at the time a Taliban spokesman said they were not linked to the attack.
The Taliban swept to power in mid-August as the US and other Western troops withdrew. The last time the hardline Islamist group ruled the country women were barred from working, girls were blocked from going to school, and women had to be chaperoned by a male relative if they wanted to leave the house.
One judge, currently in hiding in Afghanistan, previously told The Independent she is petrified the Taliban or the recently freed prisoners will kill her if they find her.
Marzia Babakarkhail, who used to work as a family court judge in Afghanistan but now lives in London, said the female Afghan judges submitted visa forms to the UK government after they announced the Afghanistan resettlement scheme but have received no replies.
She added: “They feel very disappointed. They believed and trusted in the government to help. The UK government said they prioritised women journalists, judges and all men and women who have worked directly with the UK government and the previous Afghan government but now I can’t see any progress on their cases.”
The 55-year-old, who is campaigning for the female judges to be rescued from Afghanistan, noted the mental health of the female judges in hiding in Afghanistan is steadily worsening and they are feeling “hopeless”.
Ms Babakarkhail, who moved to the UK in 2008, said: “They are very confused. How long can they go on hiding in safe houses? The international community and the UK government must please act now, otherwise, it will be too late.
“Their lives are in great danger. The tone of their messages this week is worse than last week. You can recognise the fear in their voices.”
Speaking to The Independent in a previous interview, she accused the Taliban of trying to kill her in Afghanistan in 1997 and again in Pakistan in 2007. In the first instance, she said she was forced to hide in an alleyway for five hours after nine Taliban members came to her house.
“They broke the door without permission,” she said. “They wanted to shoot me. They were searching the house and asked my mother and two sisters a lot of questions about me.”
The campaigner, who also set up a foundation to educate girls in Pakistan, accused the Taliban of running her over with a car in the second incident in Pakistan - adding that she was left with back and leg injuries.
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