Afghanistan is struggling to develop its court system, and public trials are still relatively rare. Here, an Afghan man named Mahmood (standing, right) listens to a court judge during his trial in the western city of Herat on Jan. 24. He had photos of NATO bases in Afghanistan and was sentenced to 16 years for spying for Iran.
Handcuffed and wearing dark blue traditional clothes, the Afghan defendant enters the newly renovated court in the capital of Kunar province, about 5 miles from the border with Pakistan.
Members of the local community are waiting to witness the public trial of Abdul Wali, who is accused of manufacturing alcohol — a crime that carries a lengthy prison sentence in Afghanistan.
Court clerks set up a table and put on display two plastic containers, allegedly filled with home-brewed alcohol. Chief Judge Mawlawi Mohibullah Seddiqi orders the handcuffs removed and asks the defendant if he understands the charges against him.
The judge invites the court-appointed defense attorney to state his case. The defense attorney, wearing a long robe, takes the stand next to his client. He says the police forced his client to sign a confession.
In fact, the attorney says, the defendant Abdul Wali was just making a medicinal juice to treat his kidney pain. He asks the prosecutor: Was there any test to prove that the containers were full of alcohol?
The prosecutor says the defendant has already confessed and there is no need for a lab test. Chief Judge Seddiqi nods his head and asks the defendant why he needs 45 liters of the liquid if it was just some medicinal juice.
After conferring with two assistant judges for 15 minutes, Chief Judge Sediqqi renders his verdict: Guilty. Ten years in jail.
Little Faith In Justice System
Although public trials are not new in Afghanistan, the U.S. hopes they will boost Afghans' confidence in their justice system, especially in provinces where the Taliban hold sway.
Abraham Sutherland, a U.S. State Department official working on the rule of law in Kunar province, says he thinks public trials can help defeat the insurgency.
"I think the justice system here contributes to security, or it should contribute to security," he says. "When they demonstrate authority and responsibility for controlling crime and showing that people are treated fairly, that's going to draw support for the system."
But rampant corruption, nepotism and long delays in processing court cases have turned some Afghans, especially in remote provinces, to petition the Taliban courts.
Taliban Stage Mobile Courts
These are mobile courts set up by the militants to deliver their brand of justice. But in some instances, Afghans say they are preferable to the government courts.
A farmer from Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan, who did not want to be named, says he had purchased a cow that turned out to be sick and he wanted his money back. To settle his case, he went to a Taliban court, and he was reimbursed.
"Corruption in the government court systems would have cost me more money and time," he says. Plus, he says, Afghan government courts punish the poor and give impunity to the powerful.
Hasan ul-Haq, a resident of the eastern province of Kunar, says to convince Afghans their courts are working, the government should put a senior official on trial for corruption. He points to the case of a contractor who was hired by the Americans in Kunar to build a road.
The community was looking forward to seeing the road completed, he says, and the tribes of the Sheigal district even warned the Taliban not to attack the road workers.
But when the road was half-finished, the contractor disappeared with the funds, he says, and that turned the tribes of Sheigal against the Americans and the Afghan government.
American officials in Kunar acknowledge that the project was canceled because of poor performance and corruption. Ul-Haq says the Sheigal tribes will trust the Afghan justice system only when that contractor goes on trial.
That man robbed the American taxpayers, says ul-Haq, and he deprived the people of Sheigal of the road they had dreamed of.