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By most accounts, the U.S. and its international partners are working hard to help Afghans rebuild their justice system. Thousands of new Afghan judges and lawyers are being trained at home and abroad. Dozens of new courthouses are being constructed across the country. Even so, many cases are still being heard by tribal councils far from the country's official courts. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson begins her final story in our series on Afghan justice at a legal aid clinic.

Mr. AHMADULLAH KAKAR (Afghan Lawyer): (Foreign language spoken)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: In this courtyard outside Jalalabad, lawyer Ahmadullah Kakar teaches a group of farmers and laborers something most Afghans know nothing about, their legal rights. Kakar and others here work for an Afghan legal aid office called Da Qanoon Ghushtonky. It's funded by a Scandinavian government. It 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.

(Soundbite of men arguing)

NELSON: 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 liked what Kakar had to say.

Mr. MIRA JAN (Afghan Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: 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 the 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.

Mr. JAN: (Through Translator) We are Pashtuns, and we prefer to solve things through our jirgas.

NELSON: 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.

Mr. JOHN DEMPSEY (Lawyer, U.S. Institute of Peace, Kabul, Afghanistan): They often got the results that they wanted, and it sort of became more of a system of whoever has the guns keeps the land, rather than listening to the community elders and trying to coming up with a fair resolution.

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

Mr. DEMPSEY: To me it seems that 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.

NELSON: 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, like a spanking new national legal training center at Kabul University, built by the Italians and furnished by the Americans.

(Soundbite of seminar)

Mr. WILLIAM GILLIGAN (Senior Enforcement Advisor, U.S. Treasury): Here is a chart again which depicts four years' worth of bank activities for five bank accounts...

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

Mr. GILLIGAN: Well, 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, you know, what's worse? Having no law, or a law that is not enforced?

NELSON: The Afghan government says tackling corruption is a top priority, especially in offices that deliver services, like the judicial system. In an office that's still under construction in Kabul, Mohammad Yasin Osmani has begun work as President Hamid Karzai's new anti-corruption czar. 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 rulebook is a comprehensive strategy worked out in recent months by the country's best minds, with help from international advisers.

Mr. MOHAMMAD YASIN OSMANI (Afghan Anti-Corruption Czar): If this strategy is applied properly, we believe that it will abolish or eliminate corruption. Otherwise, it will reduce the volume of corruption all over the country.

NELSON: Abdul Malik Kamawi says he's all for the salary increases and streamlining the court system. They are recommendations the Afghan Supreme Court justice says he has made himself. But Kamawi says what's also needed to ensure the independence and performance of court officers is protection.

Mr. ABDUL MALIK KAMAWI (Afghan Supreme Court Justice): (Foreign language spoken)

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

Experts say the impact of most Western and Afghan efforts to fix the court system is negligible outside of major cities and provincial centers. A case in point is Kalakan, a 30-minute drive north of Kabul. Here it's the tribal council that handles residents' affairs, including their legal disputes.

(Soundbite of tribal council meeting)

NELSON: At this recent meeting, the members complain they haven't received water from the government to irrigate their fields and 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, it's the tribal council leader, Abdul Hakim Khan, who says he'll take the matter up with officials in the capital.

Mr. ABDUL HAKIM KHAN (Tribal Council Leader, Kalakan, Afghanistan): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: 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. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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