Rural Afghans Resistant To Official Judicial System

The third of a three-part series.

Legal aid session in Jalalalbad i i

In the Behsud district outside Jalalabad, Ahmadullah Kakar, a senior lawyer for a foreign-funded legal aid group explains to farmers and laborers their right to remain silent if they are arrested. The group, Da Qanoon Ghushtonky, teaches Afghans in remote areas about their legal rights. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Legal aid session in Jalalalbad

In the Behsud district outside Jalalabad, Ahmadullah Kakar, a senior lawyer for a foreign-funded legal aid group explains to farmers and laborers their right to remain silent if they are arrested. The group, Da Qanoon Ghushtonky, teaches Afghans in remote areas about their legal rights.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

About The Series

In Afghanistan, people say they are losing faith in their government amid growing insecurity and rampant corruption. But nowhere is people's mistrust of public institutions more pronounced than in the justice system.

On Reporting In Afghanistan

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson writes about the challenges she faced trying to get an interview with a judge for this series.

Tribal council in Afghanistan. i i

Abdul Hakim Khan, the head of the tribal council in Kalakan district outside Kabul (left) and the district governor, Zaeef Jan, at a weekly meeting. These unofficial councils, whose roots go back hundreds of years, dispense justice in the absence of an adequate court system in Afghanistan. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Tribal council in Afghanistan.

Abdul Hakim Khan, the head of the tribal council in Kalakan district outside Kabul (left) and the district governor, Zaeef Jan, at a weekly meeting. These unofficial councils, whose roots go back hundreds of years, dispense justice in the absence of an adequate court system in Afghanistan.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

By most accounts, the U.S. and its international partners are working hard these days to try and help Afghans rebuild their justice system. Thousands of new Afghan judges and lawyers are being trained at home and abroad, and there are dozens of new courthouses being constructed across Afghanistan. Yet Afghan and Western officials acknowledge that seven years after they started, the judicial system is still a mess.

Bill Wood, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, says solving the problems will not be easy; nor will it be quick, "and the mix is going to be different from the cookbooks prepared outside the country," he says.

Mobile Legal Clinics

In a courtyard outside Jalalabad, lawyer Ahmadullah Kakar teaches a group of farmers and laborers something most Afghans know nothing about — their legal rights.

Kakar works for an Afghan legal aid office called Da Qanoon Ghushtonky, which is funded by a European government. The group began offering these mobile legal clinics this year in remote districts across Afghanistan.

The idea, Kakar says, is to teach ordinary citizens their rights under the new Afghan constitution.

Using cartoon posters for the mostly illiterate crowd, he lectures on everything from the right to remain silent to equal rights for women. The latter does not go over well with the students, who are all men.

They argue with him about whether women are really equal to men and whether it's a crime to marry off daughters and sisters to settle debts or make money. But for the most part, they like what Kakar has to say.

Farmer Mira Jan likens it to being blind and deaf, and then suddenly being able to see and hear.

Still, Kakar did not persuade him that the Afghan judicial system is one he should turn to when he's in need. The system, he and many others say, is too slow and corrupt to get the job done.

"We are Pashtuns," Jan says, "and we prefer to solve things through our jirgas."

Local Legal Councils

These jirgas — which in Pashto means "councils" — are how Afghans have dispensed justice for hundreds of years. Tribal elders gather in a jirga to hear criminal cases, land disputes and family matters — then render a decision pretty much on the spot.

Like the official court system, such tribal councils fell apart during the decades of war, foreign occupation and Taliban rule.

American lawyer John Dempsey says warlords also co-opted many of the jirgas that remained.

"They often got the results they wanted, and it sort of became more of a system of whoever had the guns keeps the land, rather than listening to the community elders and coming up with a fair resolution," he says.

Dempsey heads the Kabul office of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a nongovernmental organization working on judicial reform in Afghanistan. He and others say that in recent years, jirgas have re-emerged as a way for Afghans to get things done when the official government can't.

"To me, it seems the international community needs to focus more attention on how access to justice for Afghans actually operates and try to work with the non-state system of justice so that we can try to improve how disputes are resolved there, and perhaps build trust between the community elders and the actual state system of justice," Dempsey says.

Dempsey says his organization has launched a project this month to do just that. But most international and Afghan efforts remain focused on rebuilding the official court system.

Much of the money and effort is directed at the central government in Kabul, as it is at a new national legal training center at Kabul University, built by the Italians and furnished by the Americans.

Streamlining The Court System

At a seminar at a posh Kabul hotel, U.S. Treasury trainer William Gilligan lectures judges on ways to spot corruption. He describes the case of a United Nations employee who stole from the Iraq oil-for-food program to demonstrate how dirty money has been tracked elsewhere. Gilligan says it is important for Afghan officials to learn how to trace money in what is largely a cash-based society.

"I think the challenges are, like any country that has new laws, is getting the comfort level and skill level that they can apply these laws. Because what's worse: having no law, or a law that is not enforced?" Gilligan says.

The Afghan government says tackling corruption is a top priority, especially in offices that deliver services, like the judicial system.

Mohammad Yasin Osmani has begun work as President Hamid Karzai's new anti-corruption czar, in an office that's still under construction in Kabul. Osmani has the power to go through Afghan ministries to ferret out graft and forward the cases to the attorney general for prosecution.

Osmani says he's also focused on eliminating the causes of bribe-taking, like finding ways to streamline the judicial procedure and increasing salaries for judges and lawyers. His rule book is a comprehensive strategy worked out in recent months by the country's best minds, with help from international advisers.

"If this strategy is applied properly, we believe that it will abolish or eliminate corruption," Osmani says. "Otherwise, it will reduce the volume of corruption all over the country."

Abdul Malik Kamawi, an Afghan Supreme Court justice, says he's all for increasing salaries and streamlining the court system, as they are recommendations he says he has made himself. But Kamawi says what's also needed to ensure the independence and performance of court officers is protection.

Kamawi says court officers are favorite targets of the Taliban and drug traffickers. He says that last year alone, 15 judges were abducted and killed. He says he hopes the West, which has pledged some $350 million in the past two years to fix the court system, will also cut loose funds to help with the protection needs.

Negligible Rural Impact

Experts say the impact of most Western and Afghan efforts to fix the court system is negligible outside of major cities and provincial centers. This is evident in the village of Kalakan, a 30-minute drive north of Kabul.

The tribal council in that area handles residents' affairs, including their legal disputes.

At a recent meeting, the members complain they haven't received water from the government to irrigate their fields, and they want to know what to do about it.

The district governor, Kabul's representative at the meeting, listens to the debate but has no say. Instead, the tribal council leader, Abdul Hakim Khan, says he'll take the matter up with officials in the Afghan capital.

After the council adjourns, Khan doesn't hesitate to say who he thinks delivers justice in Afghanistan: "It's the tribal council," he says.

"The tribal elders are the ones with the land and the power," he explains. "And it's them that people listen to."

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