Backlogs, Shortages Hamper Afghan Courts As Afghanistan works to build order after decades of war, its future will rest on institutions including the police, the courts and the national army. Afghan courts are beset by a massive backlog and a shortage of qualified judges.
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Backlogs, Shortages Hamper Afghan Courts

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Backlogs, Shortages Hamper Afghan Courts

Backlogs, Shortages Hamper Afghan Courts

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This is the week five years ago when Kabul fell to Afghan Forces battling the Taliban. We're marking that fifth anniversary with a look at the institutions that any nation needs to maintain law and order - a trained police force, a functioning court system and a professional army. Yesterday, we spent time with Afghanistan's police.

MONTAGNE: Today, we go to court.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

MONTAGNE: The prisoners being led into the courthouse in Kabul clank as they go. Along with the chains that bind them together, their striped prison uniforms and shaved heads mark them as the accused. Once inside, they line up on a wooden bench outside the courtroom until each one is called. The court is hardly a court at all, but rather a long office. At the far end sits the senior judge at a desk decked out in a bright bouquets of plastic flowers so prized in Afghanistan.

Sitting on couches lining both sides of the room are several more judges, including one woman, a prosecutor and one judge, who's job it is to read the defense letter provided by the accused.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

MONTAGNE: In the very middle stands the prisoner, on trial as an accomplice to the murder of a policeman.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

MONTAGNE: He said he sells melon for a living. Fragile and thin with a long white beard, he tells the judge he's been in jail for two months. His wife has died and he has only a tent to call his own.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).

MONTAGNE: And as he hears the prosecutor reading the charges, the defendant cries out he didn't do it.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) If I knew the murderer, I would introduce him to you even if he was Karzai himself. I swear to God that I would introduce him to you. I'm just a poor man.

MONTAGNE: Several times during this trial, cell phones ring. The prosecutor actually answers and chats for a while. No evidence is presented. No witnesses for either side. The judge reading the defense letter never confers with the accused. There's no room for the public. And this is a murder trial, as serious as it gets in the middle of Kabul, the capital.

Mr. ALEX THIER (U.S. Institute of Peace): What you saw is very typical, but it's certainly not what needs to be. It's not what the laws of Afghanistan require and what the constitution requires, the sort of bearing of an independent institution which is responsible for the administration of justice.

MONTAGNE: Alex Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace spent two years in Afghanistan advising commissions for judicial reform and the country's new constitution.

Mr. THIER: You go out to the provinces, and in even less organized fashion you have people sort of sitting on the floor. There are no filing systems. There are often no courthouses. Judges will be sitting either in their own home or maybe in some sort of general administrative building.

MONTAGNE: In fact, the farther out one goes from Kabul, the less likely one is to find a court at all. About 90 percent of all legal disputes in Afghanistan, from murders to marriages to small claims, are mediated at the village level. In place of judges are elders and community councils. These informal courts, says Alex Thier, are traditional and generally trusted. The drawbacks, though, are obvious.

Mr. THIER: Suppose your brother kills my brother. The families sit down and pay the family of the victim blood money to reconcile what happened. Now because Afghanistan is not a cash economy what very often happens is that instead of paying cash, I will promise one of my daughters to one of your sons in marriage, which is of course a horrible problem. And in addition to that, because she comes from the family of the murderer, she may not be very well liked in the family.

MONTAGNE: Still, Alex Thier, an expert in the rule of law, believes informal courts could play a valuable role in resolving minor disputes. The problem now, he says, is that they are the only source of justice or injustice for most Afghans.

And perhaps no one in the country is more acutely aware of this than Abdul Salam Azimi. He's the primary drafter of the new constitution and he's also just recently become the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Settling into a gild-edged chair in an office lined with law books, his Western suit and short, white beard suggest the moderate Islamic scholar that he is. Abdul Salam Azimi talks about the challenges ahead.

What would you say is the biggest need that Afghanistan courts have right now?

Mr. ABDUL SALAM AZIMI (Chief Justice, Afghan Supreme Court): Actually, the biggest need is qualification. We are short of qualified judges because during this 30 years of our instability and our status as a post-war country, knowledgeable people and qualified people, they are now out of the country or they passed away or they got old, retired. So now we have 1,500 judges - more than 50 percent, they are not qualified. They are not graduated even from law college.

MONTAGNE: As you say, that's your biggest challenge. Is there a second biggest challenge?

Mr. AZIMI: Yeah, the second, you know, might be third, fourth: how to stop corruption.

MONTAGNE: One reason for the corruption: Judges are paid about $50 a month, barely enough to live on even in Afghanistan. But for Afghans, a huge barrier to trusting their courts is that their judges and prosecutors are on the take. Chief Justice Azimi looks back at the days just after the courts were freed from Taliban justice and doesn't see improvement.

Mr. AZIMI: Actually, to my judgment, five years ago it was better, cleaner than it is today.

MONTAGNE: Alex Thier says it is the appointment of Chief Justice Azimi that now offers hope. That's because Azimi replaced a fundamentalist chief justice who'd been running the Supreme Court since Taliban times.

Mr. THIER: This chief judge was a person who had very strong backing by Islamic fundamentalists, which is one of the reasons, frankly, that President Karzai kept him on for so long, because he was trying to protect his Islamic flank. But he was widely believed to be both incompetent and corrupt. And those things I think much more importantly were the things that were turning people away from the government, but also which were making the court itself such a terrible institution. And to stand up and say, no, you need to put somebody in this position who can actually do a credible job, it really turned the tide of the judicial system.

MONTAGNE: Sitting in his office, Chief Justice Azimi says he's got lots of ideas for making the courts part of the fabric of Afghan life. First, computerized records; right now there are over 6,000 cases backlogged with hundreds of accused still sitting in jail. Build houses for judges; send the high court justices out to the provinces. That and more, all costing money the government doesn't have.

So Abdul Salam Azimi has been making the rounds of donor countries looking for the funds Afghanistan's courts so desperately need.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

MONTAGNE: There are no good records of how most trials turn out in Afghanistan, how many defendants are found guilty and how many innocent. For the record, here's how the trial of the melon-seller accused of murder turned out.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

MONTAGNE: The judges found the prosecutor had offered no evidence other than the word of the police, so the court found the old man before them not guilty, at which point he began to pray.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) May God help you in your life. May God bless you.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, the Afghan national army and whether it's ready to defend a nation.

Unidentified Man #3: We have defended this country for 5,000 years. We will be able to defend this country like our ancestors.

(Soundbite of music)


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