In the latest of a wave of assassinations that has gripped Afghanistan, two female judges were killed on Sunday by gunmen in central Kabul as they headed to work.
Identified as Zakia Herawi and Qadria Yasini by family members, the women were two of the 200 female judges employed by the Supreme Court of Afghanistan.
Their driver was also wounded in the attack, the Kabul police confirmed.
"I knew these women personally. Zakia jan was a close friend and colleague. I am very disturbed by her murder," Advocate Najla Raheel, vice president of the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association told The National using a term of endearment for her friend. "She was a kind and intelligent woman, and I don't know why they would attack her."
She said she knew of no prior threats against the women.
Although conferred the title of judges, the two women worked in the General Directorate of Research and Studies in the Supreme Court.
“We are confused and shocked as to why they were targeted. They were not involved in passing out sentences to anyone. They are problem solvers within the legal system,” Ms Raheel said.
“To find the depth of this problem is very hard, but it is clear that the Taliban is targeting women to reduce the influence of women in public spaces. They are also using these killings as a way to gain leverage in the ongoing talks. This is deeply concerning,” she added.
The Afghan government has been engaged in negotiations with the Taliban since January 5 in a bid to end the two decades of conflict in the country.
However, despite the peace efforts, the violence has escalated and targeted killings have substantially spiked over the past year.
While latest figures aren’t available, as of October 2020, Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission had recorded over 500 assassinations in the period of six months.
These included journalists, activists, government and security officials, among others.
While the Taliban denies the government’s accusation they are behind the killings, the US this month directly accused the insurgents for the first time.
“The government is failing to offer any protection, no serious investigations are in place for such cases and finally the complexity of this conundrum is that in instances, it is not done by one party to the conflict,” Orzala Nemat, an Afghan researcher and activist, explained. "It’s hard to imagine any shortcut to end this any time soon.”
Salim Rustami, another Afghan lawyer who knew the victims of Sunday’s shooting, said the incident was an attack on the Afghan judiciary.
“Judges are among the most educated and scholarly members of this society. This attack was an attempt to silence the voice because clearly, the enemies want to destroy not only our intellectuals but also attack our system of justice,” he said.
This is the second such attack on Afghan judiciary employees this week.
Two members of Nangarhar court of appeal were killed by gunmen on Wednesday in the southern city of Jalalabad.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the latest attacks.
“This is an attack on the justice system and the laws of Afghanistan,” echoed Mr Aman Riazat, the spokesperson to the Justice Ministry.
“It does not weaken our resolve to ensure the rule of law. These women have sacrificed their lives for the justice system, the constitution and the rights of Afghans,” he said.
The Taliban, who follow a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, have often criticised the Afghan constitution and law to be un-Islamic.
Over the course of meetings with the Afghan representatives in the past few months, the group has also objected to the validity of the Afghan constitution.
“Our laws are made by Islamic scholars, jurists and the people of Afghanistan provided it was mandated through the Loya Jirga [grand assembly] in Kabul,” Mr Riazat argued.
Mr Rustami also said it was ironic that the insurgent group would shed the blood of jurists [who practice Sharia law] in the name of Islam.
“The real Islam does not have any such ruling that allows such bloodshed,” he said. "They misuse religious rules and tenets as tools to justify their terrorist attacks. This is not acceptable,” he added.
For many in Afghanistan, the rising toll from assassinations raise fears of a grim future.
“Prepare for chaos – that’s is the one message that these ongoing murders of women and youth send to the public,” Ms Nemat warned.
Ms Raheel, who is also a practising lawyer who has defended many Afghan women including the family of Farkhunda, a young woman who was lynched in Kabul in 2015 on false accusations, admitted that she was scared for her own life.
“I think the Taliban have switched their strategy where instead of bomb blasts and complex attacks they are using magnetic bombs and targeted attacks to create fear among the common Afghans, particularly women who are working in society. It goes to show they have not changed at all,” she said.