Trafficking Survivors in Conflict with the Law: The Key Role of Public Defenders

Updated: Jul 31

By Leah Conklin, Communications Officer


Sisters Razia* and Marzia* live in Afghanistan. Their mother passed away and their father’s disability left him unable to work. Razia, 20, and the older of the two, was employed and earning money for her family, but her younger sister struggled with the loss of their mother and required professional care. Razia was trying to support her family and could not afford the treatment her sister needed. As she tried to figure out a solution, a former colleague promised to find her a good job and treatment for her sister. All they had to do was travel to India.


“He made our passports and bought visas for us. The day before our flight, he gave us some capsules to swallow to prevent stomachache during the flight; and we foolishly took them. But when we reached the airport, the police did not give our passports back and arrested us,” said Razia.

The sisters were arrested at the airport in Kabul. They had unknowingly swallowed capsules containing a combined 540 grams of heroin--more than 1,000 times an average dose.

Each year, thousands of survivors are prosecuted and convicted for the crimes of their traffickers. Justice systems around the world fail to recognize and provide support when survivors themselves come into conflict with the law. Razia and Marzia were no exception.


ILF Afghanistan lawyer Maryam Acikza and Noorya Farooqi took the sisters’ cases and immediately recognized them as human trafficking survivors. They spent weeks fighting in court, but the sisters were convicted. Razia was sentenced to one year and one month in prison. Marzia, who had swallowed more capsules than her sister, was convicted of a felony and sentenced to one year and eight months. Maryam and Noorya exhausted all legal efforts for release. When their requests were denied, they continued to advocate for the sisters in every way they could.


In March, when President Ghani granted amnesty to more than 10,000 people due to COVID-19, Maryam made sure Razia was on the list. Razia is now home with her father, but returning to the same family and financial situation that led her to be trafficked. Maryam and Razia are working together to prevent a recurrence:


“My client was not in a good financial situation. As her defense lawyer, I’m trying to assist her in re-entry: finding a job, strengthening her connection with her fiancée... I am still in touch with her.”


Unfortunately, Marzia was not released under the amnesty. However, Noorya is maintaining contact with her and continues to seek opportunities for her release. In the meantime, Noorya has ensured that Marzia can meet with a counselor twice per week in detention to help process her mother’s death.


July 30th is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. The day is dedicated to supporting survivors and raising awareness about the many forms that trafficking can take. This year, the day is especially focused on first responders and the role they play in “identifying, supporting, counselling, and seeking justice” for survivors of human trafficking.


Globally, justice systems are ill-equipped to support human trafficking survivors who come into conflict with the law. Stigma, discrimination, and lack of training in the justice sector mean that survivors are convicted, prosecuted, and further traumatized. Quality defense lawyers play a critical role in preventing these tragedies. They can be the advocates that survivors need to get real justice, and when the system fails them, to continue to fight for remedy and relief.


*Names have been changed for privacy


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