Afghan Courts, Derided on Kabul Streets, Targeted for Overhaul
By Bill Varner
July 12 (Bloomberg) — Afghanistan’s leading judges and prosecutors began a new effort today to inspire confidence in the country’s justice system, an initiative some Kabul residents say should start in the exclusive neighborhood they call the “Den of Thieves.”
A United Nations and World Bank plan designed to reduce the backlog of cases and corruption in the courts was adopted by Justice Minister Sanwar Danish, Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabit and Supreme Court judges.
Afghans, when asked about their justice system, point to two square miles of mansions surrounded by high walls and armed guards in the Sherpur section of Kabul. While Sherpur means “Den of Lions” in Dari, the language spoken in Kabul, the neighborhood acquired its nickname because residents say corrupt officials and opium dealers stole the land.
“Poor people lived there, but their land was taken away from them starting in 2002 and their homes were destroyed,” Basir Naderi, 36, said at the Internet cafe he runs on a street near Sherpur. “How can we believe in justice when those big houses keep getting built and no one does anything about it?”
The “National Justice Program” adopted at Afghanistan’s Supreme Court building today is an acknowledgement that Afghans are turning increasingly to tribal and religious leaders, including the Taliban, for justice. The program will fund new courthouses, armored vehicles for judges to get to work safely, training for prosecutors and pay raises for people working in the judiciary.
“All the efforts to support the justice sector, which have been quite fragmented, will be embodied in a coherent, comprehensive program,” Chris Alexander, deputy head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, told reporters today. “There will be better pay and logistical support for the system.”
Improving the justice system is vital to the nation’s recovery from 30 years of civil wars and international intervention such as the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to oust the militant Islamic Taliban then ruling the country, according to Paul Fishstein, director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, which tracks the nation’s progress.
“The justice sector is just about universally considered to be one of the most problematic in terms of progress, and one of the most fundamental,” Fishstein, 55, said in an interview in his Kabul office. “It is something on which everything else stands, whether property rights, support for the state, or investment, because if there is no guarantee of property rights, people won’t make investments.”
President Hamid Karzai’s government, the U.S. and other major foreign donors have given “minimal attention” to improving the court system in recent years, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a 2007 report.
“Most Afghans are reluctant to refer their cases to the formal court system because they are unable to afford the high levels of bribery required,” the report said. “A few Afghans, particularly in the south, are recalling the rule of the Taliban with nostalgia for a time when harsh justice was delivered against criminal actions.”
Many judges lack the most basic resources to administer justice, including law libraries, clerks and even electricity in courtrooms, according to Alexander. He said the justice system’s failings lead to more corruption because the government isn’t able to investigate and prosecute corruption cases.