Afghan Justice System Fails to Win Public Trust

Judges and prosecutors often lack legal training in Afghanistan's courts. The weakness of the courts is one reason most Afghans still turn to informal community courts. But that system is riddled with human-rights issues.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to go next to Afghanistan, where the justice system is getting a facelift. President Hamed Karzai is changing the country's supreme court, appointing nine new justices. If confirmed by parliament, they will inherit a judicial system where many judges and prosecutors have no legal training. The laws are vague and the courts are seen as corrupt. The system doesn't work even though tens of millions of dollars have been spent on reform since the fall of the Taliban.

NPR's Rachel Martin reports on the more traditional forms of justice that Afghans are using instead.

(Soundbite of rooster crowing)

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

Forty miles outside of Kabul in the village of Sausang, about 20 Afghan men gather in a concrete and mud house. They are the elders, the clerics, the most respected members of the community. And in this farming village, they are judge and jury for civil disputes and crimes.

(Soundbite of crowd chattering)

MARTIN: On this day, they're hearing a case about an uncle and his nephew, whose bitter and sometimes violent land dispute has divided the family for a year. Both parties present their arguments, then the Shura leader illustrates a possible compromise solution, using raisins and pieces of hard candy to represent the disputed land, house and grapevines.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

MARTIN: This is a shura, or jirga, as it's called in Pashto, informal community courts that account for roughly 90 percent of the justice rendered in Afghanistan.

Honseda Doudsai(ph) is the head of the Sausang Shura. There's a government district court ten minutes away, but he says traditional shuras, which rely on a tribal code and Islamic law, or Sharia, are more reliable and less corrupt.

Mr. HONSEDA DOUDSAI (Sausang Shura): (Through translator) I hear from a lot of people that if a case goes to the court, then the person with the most money will win that case. We trust our system because Sharia law is more respectable for us than government law.

MARTIN: According to human rights agencies, these informal courts often hand down punishments that violate human rights protections guaranteed by Afghanistan's new constitution, like giving away a daughter to compensate for a murder, burning property, or sending culprits into exile.

Farid Hamidi, of Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission, says the only way to prevent these abuses is to restore peoples' faith in the government's judicial system.

Mr. FARID HAMIDI(Human Rights Commission, Afghanistan): (Through translator) The justice is a basic requirement of a society. In my point of view, the more we have the reforms in our judiciary system, the more people will be encouraged to refer to the judiciary system rather than the informal system which is not compatible with the human rights standards.

MARTIN: The international community, led by Italy, has funneled millions of dollars into training programs for prosecutors and judges, and rebuilt dozens of courthouses. But critics say efforts to reform Afghanistan's judicial system have fallen short.

Experts say Afghanistan was pressured into accepting hastily crafted legal codes, now often ignored, and that corruption throughout the justice system runs rampant. Defendants can sit in jail for months before seeing a judge, and according to prosecutors, the accused are rarely assigned a defense lawyer without paying a bribe.

Farid Hamidi, of the Human Rights Commission, says on top of that, the laws are too vague; so judges can apply Islamic law indiscriminately.

Mr. HAMIDI: (Through translator) The problem is not with Sharia, with the interpretation of Sharia, so the judge interprets Sharia law based on--according to his own benefits.

MARTIN: Yolanda Brunetti heads up Italy's justice program in Afghanistan. She says there are inherent contradictions in Afghanistan's constitution that have stymied reform efforts.

Ms. YOLANDA BRUNETTI (Special Coordinator, Justice Lead of Italy): We have a basic problem where you have human rights convention signed. On the other hand, no laws of the state can be against Islam. And then you have this conflict between common law and civil law. So you have somehow a very complex situation.

MARTIN: While the Italians and other western governments have borne the brunt of criticisms for the slow pace of reforms over the past few years, some say the international community's responsibility goes deeper.

Francis Vendrell is the European Union's special representative for Afghanistan. He says after the fall of the Taliban, the United States and its partners preserved alliances with warlords and Islamist hardliners; and now these same people are at positions of power, interpreting laws for their own political gain.

Mr. FRANCIS VENDRELL (European Union Representative to Afghanistan): Governments, in particular, wanted to put a victory, a quick and easy victory, in Afghanistan. Therefore, they did not pay sufficient attention to a series of issues that should have been taken into account and dealt with at the very beginning. And it's now, of course, much more difficult to do.

MARTIN: Vendrell says the future makeup of Afghanistan's Supreme Court will determine in large part whether Afghanistan is able to strike a balance between Islamic and secular law, clean up its systemic corruption, and win the trust of the Afghan people.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Kabul.

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