Backlogs, Shortages Hamper Afghan Courts

Prisoners file through the courtyard of Kabul's court center. i i

Prisoners file through the courtyard of Kabul's court center. Inmates are often shackled in twos under armed police escort as they are moved between buildings. Jim Wildman, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Wildman, NPR
Prisoners file through the courtyard of Kabul's court center.

Prisoners file through the courtyard of Kabul's court center. Inmates are often shackled in twos under armed police escort as they are moved between buildings.

Jim Wildman, NPR
Chief Justice Abdul Salam Azimi i i

Chief Justice Abdul Salam Azimi sits in his large, air-conditioned office. President Hamid Karzai appointed Azimi to the job after the chief justice's predecessor was fired for incompetence. Jim Wildman, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Wildman, NPR
Chief Justice Abdul Salam Azimi

Chief Justice Abdul Salam Azimi sits in his large, air-conditioned office. President Hamid Karzai appointed Azimi to the job after the chief justice's predecessor was fired for incompetence.

Jim Wildman, NPR
A sign outside Afghanistan's Supreme Court building in Kabul. i i

Chief Justice Abdul Salam Azimi says he is unable to monitor caseloads in remote areas of Afghanistan because his ministry lacks proper computers. Jim Wildman, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Wildman, NPR
A sign outside Afghanistan's Supreme Court building in Kabul.

Chief Justice Abdul Salam Azimi says he is unable to monitor caseloads in remote areas of Afghanistan because his ministry lacks proper computers.

Jim Wildman, NPR
Copies of Afghanistan's legal code fill a display case in the lobby of the Supreme Court building. i i

Copies of Afghanistan's legal code fill a display case in the lobby of the Supreme Court building in central Kabul. Jim Wildman, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Wildman, NPR
Copies of Afghanistan's legal code fill a display case in the lobby of the Supreme Court building.

Copies of Afghanistan's legal code fill a display case in the lobby of the Supreme Court building in central Kabul.

Jim Wildman, NPR

In a waiting room outside the office of Afghanistan's newly appointed chief justice, Abdul Salam Azimi, a security officer asks some judges from a remote province for identification. The judges say they don't have any. Carrying judges' IDs would have been a death wish on the long, dangerous journey to Kabul, they explain.

Half of these judges are unqualified, Chief Justice Azimi says. Moreover, judges in Afghanistan don't make a living wage. And Azimi is unable to monitor caseloads in remote areas because his ministry lacks proper computers.

President Hamid Karzai appointed Azimi to the job after the chief justice's predecessor was fired for incompetence. About 6,000 cases remain on backlog. Tasked now with fixing a broken judicial system, Azimi says this is the first time in his life that he feels overwhelmed by his job.

Afghanistan's courts and its rule of law will ultimately provide the most obvious illustration of whether the country's emerging democracy is earning the public's respect. The police are already poorly regarded because of corruption. Courts, too, are viewed with deep cynicism.

We sat through two cases in a Kabul court, which seemed orderly, fair, and properly conducted with decorum. Both defendants were acquitted. But the two trials were held in a judge's office. There was no stenographer. And a third case was postponed because the prosecutor failed to appear.

Conveniently — or not — Afghanistan's culture of local justice fills in the gaps where the national system falls short. Most people today take their disputes to local councils and influential individuals.

"People in Afghanistan need legitimate institutions to resolve their problems," says Alex Their, a senior rule-of-law adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

He says these local discussions get better results than formal courts today, but adds that there are drawbacks: "There are certain traditional practices in Afghanistan which violate human rights. Those practices are carried forward particularly at the village level."

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