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

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010; A09

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.

U.S. officials recognize those doubts about the system here.

"This is one of the most important challenges that we face," said David T. Johnson, assistant secretary for the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. "People have to be confident that justice is being done."

The bureau is working with police and prosecutors to develop a computerized case management system for the courts. Its $100 million budget is projected to nearly double next year.

The challenge is daunting. Afghanistan is divided into 34 provinces and 400 small districts, and fewer than a hundred of those districts have an assigned prosecutor. Most have no defense lawyers and no courts.

In an effort to bring some order to a system with 15,000 active criminal cases nationwide, a U.S. contractor developed a relatively simple system in which each case was assigned a number and a colored folder with a form for such basic information as the defendant's name, arrest date, arresting police officer, prosecutor and judge. About a third of the cases have entered the new system -- in the process of reviewing cases to create the files, authorities found that 128 prisoners were incarcerated beyond their sentence term.

Even before suspects are arrested, investigations must be improved, U.S. officials have said. They have created training sessions for police officers and prosecutors -- in many cases, the sessions mark the first time the two Afghan groups have ever trained together.

The training includes staged crime scenes with wooden dummies for corpses, marked off with red and white tape to keep onlookers at bay. The sessions also include providing officers with copies of the Afghan constitution and penal code, fingerprint kits and digital cameras -- and having them watch videos of American TV crime shows such as "CSI: Las Vegas" and courtroom movies such as "My Cousin Vinny."

Ghulam Mohammed has been a police officer in Takhar province for 25 years, dealing with hundreds of cases. But before coming to one of the training sessions, he said: "I didn't know anything about fingerprints or DNA or whatever. . . . I've learned a lot of new things."

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