Image caption, Once an influential lawyer, Farishta is now in hiding, fearing for her life

Until August, Farishta was an influential prosecutor who exercised her power for a cause. She prosecuted criminals, Taliban militants, corrupt bureaucrats, and men who beat women and children.

Today, 27-year-old Farishta is in hiding. Like a fugitive on the run, she changes her location often. For her safety, we have changed her name.

Originally from Afghanistan's south-eastern Paktia province, Farishta was among those Afghan women who obtained professional success in the years after the Taliban was defeated, challenging the country's male-dominated and ultra-conservative society.

Five years ago, under the previous government, she became a prosecutor in Afghanistan's Attorney-General's office. Part of her job was "prosecuting and getting sentences for those who committed rape, murder and domestic violence", she told the BBC from a safe house in Afghanistan. It was a "challenging but satisfying job", she said.

But as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan in recent months, before seizing the country, they freed prisoners along the way, including thousands of hardened criminals and Islamist militants.

Among those let go by the crusading Taliban was Mohamad Gol, who faced charges of planning suicide bomb attacks. Farishta had painstakingly gathered evidence against Gol and successfully prosecuted him, putting him behind bars for what should have been a 20-year sentence.

Days after the Taliban took over Kabul, Mohammed Gol called her, Farishta said. "He said he was coming after me to take revenge, and I cannot hide anywhere."

Since then, she has been on the move. With no salary, she is finding it difficult to make ends meet. Farishta and her colleagues say the Taliban are opposed to women working as prosecutors and judges and they want to keep most women away from the workplace, as they did during their rule through the late 1990s.

Image source, ReutersImage caption, One of the first things the Taliban did after seizing control was to release militants from prison

Women like Farishta have good reason to be afraid. In January, two women judges of the Afghan Supreme Court were shot dead in Kabul – part of a wave of targeted killings widely blamed on the Taliban. And two legal officials who worked in the Afghan Justice Ministry have been killed in Kabul in recent weeks in what are believed to be revenge attacks.

International rights groups including Amnesty and Human Rights watch have reported extra-judicial killings and abductions, despite an amnesty declared by the Taliban for government workers.

Hundreds of women judges went into hiding as the group seized power in August. Some scrambled to leave the country during the US-led evacuation in August, others were left to face their fate in Afghanistan.

"I personally received many phone calls and threats from Taliban and their associated members," said an Afghan woman judge from Parwan province, who was among those to get out.

  • Female judges shot dead in Kabul
  • A year of violence on the road to peace

The judge, who joined the bench in 2018, is now living in the UK. She said her property, belongings and all others assets had been seized by the Taliban and her relatives were at risk of persecution from the Islamist group.

"Female judges played a vital role to establish the rule of law and the fight against corruption inside branch," she said. "If they leave the country, it's a huge vacuum for the judicial branch."

There are still about 230 Afghan female judges stranded in Afghanistan, all of them now in hiding. According to interviews with judges, and activists working on their behalf, former residences have been searched and ransacked and relatives threatened.

"Their careers are over, their bank accounts have been frozen, and their future as women in Afghanistan is grim," said Judge Anisa Dhanji, a UK representative of the non-profit International Association of Women Judges, IAWJ.

Image caption, Once-influential female judges are now forced into hiding

The IAWJ, which has trained several Afghan female judges in the past, stepped in to co-ordinate the evacuation of dozens of judges amid the chaos and violence at the Kabul airport after the Taliban take over.

It was a complex operation involving several teams working through the night with maps and interpreters, coordinating intelligence reports about what's happening at the Kabul airport gates.

Against the odds, around 40 Afghan women justices and their families were evacuated. Most are now in the US and Europe and some in Turkey, Tajikistan, Iran and the Gulf. But many more were left behind.

One Afghan judge hiding in Kabul told the IAWJ that a man she sentenced on terrorism charges had not only been released, and threatened her, but had now been appointed as a Taliban judge.

Another judge said she was due to give birth imminently by planned Caesarean section, but she was too afraid to go to a hospital and identify herself there.

And beyond these shocking cases, the sudden disappearance of the judicial system has dealt a blow across the board for women seeking justice in Afghanistan.

"As the courts are closed, women have no avenue to complain about rape or abuse by their husbands and other men," said Zainab, an independent lawyer running a legal firm in several Afghan cities, whose name we have changed.

"No one is coming forward to discuss it, because there are no female lawyers anymore," she said.

Image caption, Farishta is hiding after warnings from convicts. "He said he was coming after me to take revenge," she said.

All Zainab's offices have been shut down and her 15 staff have lost their jobs. She received her own threat, she said, from a man from Herat she prosecuted for sexual assault but who was freed by the Taliban.

"He said, 'I will find you, even if you hide in Herat, and then I will hand you over to the Taliban'."

A senior Taliban spokesman and minister denied responsibility for the threats and the ransacking of properties of female judges and other legal officials.

"We reject these allegations, our fighters would never do such a thing," Zabihullah Mujahid told the BBC.

Asked whether the female judges and prosecutors will be allowed to return to work, Mujahid said, "A decision will be made and a framework is under process. Then everything will become clear."

Campaigners say time is running out for the Afghan women lawyers and judges in hiding.

"The urgency at present is in assisting those who wish to leave," said Justice Dhanji.

"Their lives and the lives of their families are at risk. They are being hunted simply for having sat in judgement on men."

Additional reporting by the BBC's Afghan producer Mahfouz Zubaide