Afghanistan’s troubled judiciary in focus at Rome conference

KABUL (AFP) – In a small room that looks like a prison cell, files stand in waist-high piles on the floor. An official explains there is no fixed price for a bribe to pick one out and send it moving through the courts.

“It is not like potatoes or rice,” says Hamidullah, 25. “It depends on the case.”

“There is corruption because the salaries are so low,” he explains, saying he earns 2,500 afghani (50 dollars) a month.

These are the offices of the Kabul attorney general at the city’s police headquarters. There are no shelves, no computers. The dusty desks are empty. The heat is stifling.

Another official, who refuses to give his name, says he also earns 2,500 afghani but his rent is four times that. “We manage to find money,” he says.

“This is chaos,” admits Niamatullah Ahmadi, 42, who works in the same office. “It is everyone for himself.”

Afghanistan’s backward and overburdened system of courts and prisons is one of the weak spots in the international effort to revive the country after the Taliban regime was run out in late 2001, leaving behind a nation in ruins.

On Monday and Tuesday, delegates from 25 nations and advocacy groups meet in Rome for a conference on the rule of law in Afghanistan, a subject often ignored while the world focused on re-establishing peace and security here.

The conference will “create a momentum, bringing the justice reform sector back into the agenda,” said UN spokesman Adrian Edwards.

About 70 percent of the people in Afghanistan’s jails are awaiting sentencing, according to official figures.

Elderly Fazil Ahmad is trying to get his drug-addicted son out of prison.

“I have been trying to find out where his case is for two months,” he says. “If I give them some money, it will go quicker.”

A March 2007 report to the UN Security Council highlighted “widespread corruption” in the judicial system here. A survey released the same month said Afghans believed corruption was worse now than at any time in nearly 30 years.

Staff are too few, poorly trained and badly paid. An average judge earns between 3,000 and 6,000 afghani a month, and there are only 220 registered state defence lawyers for a population of about 30 million.

Most people are unrepresented when they stand before a judge. And many judges are not up-to-date with the law because new regulations are not properly gazetted or made accessible.

“Citizens don’t know what the laws are, nor do the judges,” one UN representative said.

According to a report issued in May by a board overseeing progress in the system, many of Afghanistan’s 437 courts do not have “buildings, furniture, or equipment necessary to perform even the most basic court functions.”

“Rule of law remains precarious, governance is fragile, and the judicial system is ineffectual and inaccessible,” the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board says.

Illustrating the scale of the problem, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission secured over the past five years the release of about 5,000 people either in jail without charge or serving more time than they would have if convicted, commissioner Nader Nadery says.

“All the attention in the last five years was on security and economic development, and not the fact that good governance and rule of law could facilitate security and stability,” Nadery says. “People are not satisfied.”

For UN human rights officer Javier Leon-Diaz, “the problem in Afghanistan is a lack of knowledge in judges, lack of training, but there is a willingness to change.”

“Judicial reform is a very complex and lengthy exercise. There has been progress but you need to be patient. It’s only been five years.”

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