In Afghanistan, U.S. seeks to fix a tattered system of justice

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010

KABUL -- Behind the combat troops and military trainers, alongside the aid workers and agriculture experts, come the lawyers.

U.S. State Department legal experts and contractors are fanning out across the capital and throughout the provinces, trying to build a functioning legal and correctional system in a broken country where justice is too often delayed, denied or nonexistent.

The widespread sentiment that there is no justice in Afghanistan is one of the principal causes of popular disillusionment with the government of President Hamid Karzai. The feeling has been exploited by the militant Taliban, which dispenses its own brutal version of summary justice in areas under its control.

The U.S.-led effort is already showing signs of having an impact. Near the end of a seven-month American training course for prosecutors and police officers, a prosecutor from Takhar province, Abdul Zaher, said: "In this country, Afghans are used to torturing suspects. In this course, we've learned to stop, because it's illegal. If we have a suspect in custody, we've learned how to treat him."

The problems here affect every level of the justice system, from police to courts to prisons.

Because there are not enough attorneys, many arrested suspects are sentenced to prison without ever seeing a defense lawyer as required by the Afghan constitution. Many prisoners languish in jail past the time they can be legally held without a trial. Others have remained in prison for months after their sentences, because their cases fell between the cracks.

Some of the problems were on display during a recent court session at the country's main intelligence office, the National Security Directorate, which tries terrorism suspects. In a cramped room, the prosecutor read out the charges while one of the three judges talked on his cellphone and another sent text messages.

There was no computer, telephone or electricity. The prosecutor carried court documents in a green plastic shopping bag. Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtiari told one suspect he was being sentenced to six years in prison for belonging to the Taliban but said the man could appeal. The defendant angrily demanded a copy of the charges against him, and the judge burst out: "We don't have a photocopier! You want the judge to pay for this out of his own salary?"

Judges complain they have no equipment, no cars to travel to court, no government-issued phones and, most importantly, no security -- many are threatened, some have been kidnapped, others killed. Bakhtiari said that during a sensitive trial, he had to move his family to a hidden location for six months and take his children out of school.

"All of this causes injustice," Bakhtiari said. "Justice cannot be implemented in the country."

Nearly everyone agrees the system is awash in corruption. The wealthy, or those with connections, rarely face punishment. Judges and prosecutors -- whose salaries are barely $200 per month -- routinely accept payments to drop charges, lose case files or let suspects walk free.

"People who have money can go free," said Harum Mutmaeen, 22, who was on his way to visit his cousin at Pul-i-Charkhi prison outside Kabul. His cousin had been imprisoned there for a year and a half after being implicated in a kidnapping. "The people who don't have money -- nobody cares about them," Mutmaeen said.

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