Roxane Vachon: an advocate for criminal justice in Afghanistan

  Roxane Vachon in Afphanistan
  Roxane Vachon wearing a burkha and visiting with an Afghan colleague's child. “Although very hot and inconvenient, wearing the burkha allows me to go incognito in communities where western women are quite a novelty, such as Kunduz.”

Roxane Vachon had been practising criminal law in Vancouver for six years when, one March afternoon in 2005, a small newspaper ad changed her life. The next day, Ms. Vachon accepted a fellowship with Legal Aid Afghanistan (LAA), a criminal defence development project sponsored jointly by the Montreal-based International Criminal Defence Attorneys Association and the International Legal Foundation, headquartered in New York. Within two weeks of accepting that offer, Roxane Vachon packed up her life, said good-bye to her partner and two sons (then 9 and 10), and travelled to Kabul, Afghanistan. Working out of LAA’s clinic in a small house, Ms. Vachon spent the next two months helping local people — many of them children — with their legal problems. LAA trains and mentors local defence lawyers, focusing on developing their practical skills and experience in case management, pleading techniques and effective interaction with authorities. The hope is that practical education and positive experience will both inspire and enable local lawyers’ support for an individual rights-based criminal defence culture in Afghanistan.

In September 2006, Ms. Vachon returned to Vancouver from her second two-month LAA fellowship in Kabul. She recently spoke about her experiences in Afghanistan with Mark Forsythe, on CBC Radio One’s BC Almanac program.

MARK FORSYTHE: Why were you drawn to do this kind of work?

ROXANE VACHON: I have always been interested in opportunities to help people in less fortunate parts of the world. I think destiny took me to Afghanistan the first time around, because one afternoon my partner happened to show me a newspaper ad that was closing that day. So, I just sent an email asking, “Is there still time to send my resume?” One thing led to another, and the following day they offered me a job. Ten days later I was in Afghanistan.

FORSYTHE: Why is it necessary for Canadian lawyers to go to Afghanistan and help this way?

VACHON: We have such a privileged justice system here. It’s certainly not perfect, but Afghanistan has absolute chaos and arbitrariness for a justice system. If we can go out and train local lawyers to become advocates in their own system, I think we ought to do that.

FORSYTHE: Could you give us some examples of the circumstances of people that you defended?

VACHON: Well, we would defend anybody who is indigent. In Afghanistan, that means everybody who’s in jail. If you have money, you’re going to pay your way out of trouble when the police arrest you. So, if you’re in jail, you’re poor. There’s no such thing as bail. You have to just wait and wait until your matter is heard. Prisoners range from suspected opium smugglers, to women alleged to have stolen a chicken, to children charged with stealing an egg. And they are held in custody in overcrowded, abject conditions for any amount of time.

FORSYTHE: What kind of sentences do they face for what we might consider to be minor criminal acts?

VACHON: Huge sentences. Their jeopardy is huge. Execution is the high water level. A mother can serve a life sentence for a crime committed by a male relative.

FORSYTHE: Can you tell us about a memorable person you defended?

VACHON: I went to a prison in Kunduz, a city in the north of the country. Lawyers hadn’t visited the women there in a very long time. I met a mother in custody with her daughter and several grandchildren. In Afghanistan, a woman’s arrest dishonours her whole family. Nobody wants her in the village, nor her children or grandchildren. This woman was in jail because her husband had disappeared. The authorities assumed that she must have killed him, refusing to believe that he might have run off with another woman to Iran. That simply could never happen; she must have killed him. So there she was, serving a life sentence with her daughter and grandchildren.

FORSYTHE: What happened after your visit?

VACHON: Unfortunately she had already exhausted her levels of appeal. But we were able to apply to have her daughter transferred out of the adult criminal justice system and into the juvenile system. She was seventeen and just made the cut, receiving a small sentence. When I returned during my second fellowship, she and her children were already out of custody. If we hadn’t intervened, they would have spent their lives in prison.

FORSYTHE: I believe you also warded off a death sentence for another person you represented?

VACHON: Yes, his name was Bashir. His case had to do a lot with corruption: somebody highly placed in the government had it in for him. Although he had been acquitted at the first level, he was charged again, convicted and sentenced to death. I am sure that someone paid someone to get the verdict they wanted.

When we arrived at the courthouse at noon for the 1:00 pm sentencing hearing, we were told that the hearing had gone ahead in the morning and that Bashir had been sentenced to death. After I flew into an apoplectic rage, they agreed to hear my sentencing submissions at the scheduled time. We persuaded the United Nations to send two observers in a UN truck — basically applying maximum pressure to prevent Bashir’s execution. His sentence was commuted to 16 years, but I know that the authorities haven’t given up on the death penalty. I heard recently that they have filed an appeal of the commuted sentence.

FORSYTHE: We hear about suicide bombers in Afghanistan. Was that a reality you experienced?

VACHON: One day I received an email from the Canadian Embassy that said, “We have intelligence that there’s a suicide bomber out and about in Kabul. He’s going to strike in the next couple of days. We can’t tell you where. Stay home.” So that’s exactly what I tried to do. I went to work and came home at 6:00 o’clock.

At 6:30, my home blew up. Three people died in that blast. I was lucky — I wasn’t hurt, but it was terrifying. Being a Canadian, you can’t even imagine that you’ve just been bombed. So I was running around thinking a propane tank had just blown up and I wouldn’t be having dinner that night. I thought that until I walked into the dining room, where it was pretty clear that something very, very bad had just happened.

FORSYTHE: And why do you think your home was a target?

VACHON: It was a guest house where foreigners typically live, so they were targeting foreigners. Also, there was an Internet café, which was pretty new in Afghanistan and was seen as a symbol of western communication. The bomber was planning to blow up the dining room at dinner in order to have the maximum amount of casualties. But he accidentally blew himself up in the bathroom, which was merciful.

FORSYTHE: That was the first trip. What about the second time around, what did you experience?

VACHON: I felt so much more comfortable. I would shop for bread, fruit and vegetables by myself. I would take a cab. In Kabul there were shopping malls, hotels, banks and bank machines being built. Kabul’s infrastructure was so much better than the first time I was there, but the security had clearly deteriorated. Every week a couple of bombs would go off, and where was anybody’s guess.

FORSYTHE: How did you stay focused on what you had to do when this was going on around you?

VACHON: It’s amazing what the human mind can do. If a bomb went off in downtown Vancouver today, we would all be really frightened. Everything would stop for several days. In Kabul, a bomb detonated outside the courthouse about an hour after I had left the building. I thought, “Oh that’s good, I wasn’t there. And at least it’s not on my street. At least it wasn’t my house. At least it’s two blocks away.” You just adapt and keep functioning. If you can’t adapt, I guess you don’t go there and do that kind of work.

FORSYTHE: How have the Afghan people adapted?

VACHON: Oh goodness. They’ve adapted through 30 years of conflict, from the Russians to the Mujahedeen to the civil war. They’re resilient people who like to laugh, are spirited and light hearted. And of course, they’re profoundly religious. Violence is so much a part of their lives that they’ve learned to function and be happy in spite of it.

FORSYTHE: How much success have you and your International Criminal Defence Attorneys Association colleagues had in training Afghan lawyers? And do you have much faith that the Afghan people can receive equity and fair treatment in their justice system?

VACHON: For the success part, we represented 1,500 people who otherwise would be in jail, serving 25-year sentences or awaiting execution. As for training lawyers, they’re bright, capable individuals who want to get their country on track. They have progressed enormously in the short time we’ve worked and done trials with them. The first lawyers I trained have become trainers, and now are considered to be senior lawyers.

Here, a defence counsel’s work is a matter of always reminding the police that they can’t step over that due process boundary. There, criminal lawyers are doing the same thing, but at a much more basic level. They’re fighting their own corrupt system. They challenge and denounce corruption day after day, until little by little, there are small changes.

FORSYTHE: What’s it been like to make the transition of coming home?

VACHON: People say, oh you must be so happy to be home. Of course I’m happy to be home. I’m happy to see my kids, my friends and my family. But it’s not that easy. Making the transition from a place like that is difficult. I feel like I’m living in a bubble or a fog. But every day the fog is a little bit thinner and I can feel closer to my normal activities. In fact, I have to get on with it, because I have to live and work. But, it’s not that simple. Many of our daily concerns seem so trivial when I think about the struggle for survival that is unfolding in Afghanistan....

Ms. Vachon is encouraging other lawyers to get involved. Through the International Criminal Defence Attorneys Association and the International Legal Foundation, LAA is committed to establishing a network of legal aid clinics throughout Afghanistan’s urban centres. Experienced Canadian criminal lawyers are urgently needed to train and mentor local Afghan lawyers. She urges interested Law Society members to contact the International Criminal Defence Attorneys Association.

Ms. Vachon has a a second suggestion — a vision, really. That would be to see some of Canada’s leading law firms offer internship opportunities to young Afghan lawyers. She believes it would be a perspective-altering experience for them to spend two months here, seeing how we live and work, and seeing how effectively good lawyers can protect their clients’ rights and freedoms when working in a justice system that is not corrupt.

Much needs to be done, and Canadians have much to offer.

For more information about the work done by the International Criminal Defence Attorneys Association, see: or call 514 285-1055. For discussion of Roxane’s vision for Canadian-Afghan legal internships, call her at 604 696- 0299.