Debevoise and ILF Secure Release of Unjustly Imprisoned Young Afghan Woman

18 June 2020

Debevoise and Plimpton LLP successfully assisted its long-standing pro bono partner the International Legal Foundation (“ILF”), a prominent NGO working globally to promote legal aid access and provide legal defense, in securing the release of a young woman, Brishna, unjustly imprisoned in Afghanistan.

Brishna is a survivor of gender-based violence and discrimination. Over a period of several weeks, Brishna was repeatedly sexually assaulted and her children abused by her cousin, culminating in the tragic death of her five-year-old child. Rather than receiving support as a victim of sexual violence, Brishna was instead charged with being an accessory to murder. The ILF took on Brishna’s case in June 2018, but from the moment she was arrested through to her final appeal at the Supreme Court, Brishna was denied her fundamental rights to an impartial criminal investigation and a fair trial. The trial and appeals were tainted by repeated instances of gender bias, where her testimony was not given appropriate weight, and she was charged with adultery despite being a victim of sexual violence. The gender-discriminatory penal process ultimately resulted in a conviction and an 18-year sentence based on virtually no evidence.

Debevoise was engaged on the case in February 2020 in order to assist the ILF in submitting for a presidential pardon for Brishna, the last available recourse for relief in the Afghan legal system. After COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, the ILF lobbied the Afghan justice officials to reduce prison populations in light of the particular susceptibility of prisoners to the contagion. On March 21, 2020, the President of Afghanistan issued a Special Amnesty Decree for the pardon and release of certain categories of prisoner, including nearly all women. The ILF and Debevoise immediately submitted an application under the Decree to Afghanistan’s Attorney General Office to demonstrate that Brishna qualified for relief. On May 3, 2020, Brishna was finally released. She is now reunited with her family.

Commenting on the case, the ILF’s Afghanistan Deputy Country Director, and lead lawyer on Brishna’s case, Samira Ishaqzai states, “Women are vulnerable members of Afghan society. When suspected and accused of a crime, they are often humiliated and sometimes even their closest family members do not try to secure their release. We have fought to get justice for Brishna for more than two years. I am extremely delighted that with assistance from our partners at Debevoise, finally and fortunately, Brishna is free.”

Debevoise partner Catherine Amirfar adds, “Brishna’s case stands as a ray of hope for the hundreds of women suffering from gender bias in Afghanistan’s legal system. We were privileged to assist the ILF in securing her release and are elated that Brishna can resume her life with her family.”

The Debevoise team assisting the ILF and Brishna is led by partner Catherine Amirfar, and includes lawyers Shreya Aren, Ramsay McCulloch and Fanny Gauthier, law clerk Julia Chang Wang and trainee solicitor Sara Ewad.