A man explains to Afghan Attorney General Farid Hamidi that he was cheated out of his family land by powerful people. (Pamela Constable/The Washington Post)

All day long, a line of Afghans waited outside Farid Hamidi’s office, clutching sheaves of tattered legal papers they had brought to other officials in the past. They had heard that Afghanistan’s new attorney general was an honest man, willing to listen to anyone, so they had gathered up their fading hopes for justice and taken a number outside his door.

Their cases ranged from petty to tragic. A weeping woman in a blue burqa begged Hamidi to stop some neighbors from harassing her daughters. A despondent farmer in a stained tunic pleaded for leniency for his son, a former police officer, who is in prison facing a death sentence. He said the son was forced to confess to a murder committed by his superior officer, who was in love with a woman and killed her fiance on their wedding night. 

Hamidi, 49, a scholarly man with a shock of gray hair, listened gravely to each entreaty last Monday, often asking for more details or pausing to consult several assistants. Sometimes he signed a legal order or promised to review the matter. Other times he explained apologetically that there was nothing he could do to help.

“I have been pursuing this case for 16 years, going from one office to another. You are my last hope,” said Mohammed Sarwar Akbar, 57, a rural district official carrying a satchel full of documents. He said his brother had been killed long ago and the murderer had been released from prison due to political pressure. “This man should not be free,” he said. Hamidi agreed to look into it.

The weekly public access session, which Hamidi instituted after taking office in June, is part of a campaign to boost public confidence in a justice system that has long been criticized as slow, corrupt and heavily politicized. President Ashraf Ghani has made this issue a centerpiece of his reform agenda, and his choice of Hamidi, a former human rights activist, was widely praised and unanimously approved by parliament.

At conferences and on his official website, Hamidi often says his highest priorities are attacking corruption and ensuring that all Afghans have access to justice. He has replaced scores of prosecutors across the country, and two weeks ago he inaugurated a new anti-corruption justice center, with a team of investigators and prosecutors to pursue high-level cases of fraud and bribery. . 

“The future of Afghanistan is at stake because of corruption. If we don’t act against it, we won’t be able to bring peace, stability, security or rule of law,” Hamidi said in a recent interview. “We are building a machine that has public support and strong political will. I will be accountable, transparent and committed to this mission.”

A former official of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Hamidi said he was persuaded to take the job by Ghani, who called him at 6 a.m. last spring in Boston, where he was finishing a master’s degree at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “The president told me, ‘I need you and your country needs you.’ Three days later, I was in Kabul,” Hamidi said.

Still, many observers remain skeptical that Hamidi will be able to penetrate the web of corruption in Afghanistan, where a generation of conflict empowered armed strongmen and a decade of foreign-funded projects has created vast opportunities for stealing. Jobs in law enforcement are widely viewed as opportunities for extortion, and powerful men in dark-windowed SUVs break the law with impunity.

Many of the cases that came before Hamidi last Monday had a common theme of abuse and de facto power wielded by wealthy or well-connected Afghans who flout the law — often in cahoots with corrupt officials. The individual stories hinted at a far wider and deeper problem that previous justice ministers and top prosecutors have been unable or unwilling to tackle.

Hajji Hayatabullah, 53, a community leader from Kabul, said he had come on behalf of several hundred residents who had been robbed of their land by a group of wealthy young men with guns and close ties to powerful members of Parliament. He said he had been to numerous other officials to complain but had come away empty-handed.

“One agency put out an arrest order, but the district police officer ran away,” Hayatabullah said. “These are mafia people. They have weapons and ride around in Land Cruisers with no license plates, and they do what they want. Nobody can stop them.” 

Hamidi agreed to review the case, and he has repeatedly stressed that under his new authority, no one in Afghanistan will be above the law. His team of eager young prosecutors is slated to set up the new anti-corruption unit in a heavily guarded compound on the outskirts of the capital. But so far, they have yet to go after any really big fish, and commenters on social media warned that Hamidi is taking on a monster.

“You are a very qualified person for this job and we wish you all the best,” one Afghan tweeted, listing a litany of common abuses, from legislators who drive untaxed luxury vehicles to terrorists who bribe their way out of prison. He strongly urged Hamidi to give polygraph tests to all judges and prosecutors. “Hope this is a good start and you will do some work and not get corrupted like the others,” he added. “Good luck.”

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