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DEMOCRACY IN THE BALANCE

In Afghanistan, money tips the scales of justice

The nation's legal system is driven by bribes, and the public's disgust is stoking nostalgia for the Taliban.

December 18, 2006|Paul Watson | Times staff writer

Kabul, Afghanistan — IN the halls of justice here, almost everything is for sale.

It can take one bribe to obtain a blank legal form and another to have a clerk stamp it.

Lawyers openly haggle in corridors and parking lots over the size of payoffs. A new refrigerator delivered to the right official might help solve a long-running property dispute.

Court dockets don't exist. The Koran, the basis of Islamic law and also the Afghan legal code, is often the only book on the shelves of poorly trained judges. Even a 93-year-old man depending on the courts to save his family home can be threatened with jail.

As Afghans try to piece their legal system back together after decades of war, many spend long months shopping for justice in the gloomy corridors of Kabul's central courts complex. More than 90% of lower-court cases end up in the capital's appeals court, landing on the glass top of Judge Muzafarddin Tajali's large wooden desk.

A former Supreme Court justice, Tajali fled to Pakistan when the Taliban seized most of the country. Now he's back, sitting in a high-back swivel chair with the Chinese price tag still dangling from the black upholstery, amid a dangerous mess created by incompetence and corruption.

"In the whole country, we may not have even two qualified defense lawyers," Tajali said.

"Everybody has expectations, and of course they get upset," he added. "They don't threaten me inside the courtroom. But when their hopes are broken, they get mad and go and scream outside.

"This kind of justice system, which is not clean and transparent, threatens the government and democracy."

Systematic injustice stokes searing humiliation and resentment, turning many Afghans against President Hamid Karzai's government and his foreign backers. Nostalgia for the ruthless rule of the Taliban is growing as the line between judges and criminals blurs. When they can't find justice in the courts, Afghans are tempted to turn back to what they've trusted most for a generation: their weapons.

Sometimes prisoners in white pinstripes hobble into the carpeted office that serves as Tajali's courtroom. Their wrists shackled to heavy bars, linked by jangling chains to irons padlocked around their ankles, they stand accused of murder, kidnapping, rape and other crimes.

But Tajali spends most of his time trying to settle arguments over land, the legacy of almost constant war that drove millions of Afghans into exile and made squatters out of many of those who stayed. Most government records survive, but forgers have tampered with many of them, Tajali said.

"Houses have been sold to three or four different people while the owners were totally unaware of what was happening," the judge said.

One laborer, Abdul Jamil, spends most of his time in a nasty legal fight with a neighbor who claimed a piece of his family's land and persuaded a lower-court judge to ignore Jamil's deed.

"If I had a gun, I would take it and fire 30 bullets into the judge's head," Jamil said, touching a leathery finger to the center of his forehead. "But I worry about my children because they would suffer. No justice exists in this country. Justice is only for those who have money to buy it."

Real or forgery?

AMONG the disputes that have landed in Tajali's court is the case of Khaliq Dad, the 93-year-old patriarch of an extended family of 30 who all live in a single-story, dun-colored house that Dad says he bought 16 years ago.

A cold, damp draft blows through gaps in the windows. The walls are cracked and the paint is chipped. Dad lives in a front room, his aluminum cane standing in a corner by the door. He keeps a 1990 deed to the property tucked under the corner of his mattress.

But Maliha Ali, a refugee returned from Canada, says the house belongs to her and has gone to court to get it back. Her photograph and thumbprint, along with those of Dad and two witnesses, are on Dad's copy of the deed, but she insists she only leased the property to him.

The witnesses can't be found, nor can a copy of the deed filed with the Treasury Department. Ali doesn't have documents to prove her side of the story. But she says that Dad's copy is a forgery.

"He is a gangster," sneered Ali, who brought a relative named Wahidullah, a tall, thick-necked man with a booming voice, to court as her bodyguard. "I have not given them any documents, so it is all made up."

A senior Supreme Court official who reviewed the deed at The Times' request said he was confident the document was authentic. The official spoke on the condition he not be identified because the court had not ruled on Dad's appeal.

But in separate trials, three lower-court judges declared Dad's copy a forgery. Dad said they also rejected a letter from Karzai's palace asking for a Supreme Court review of the case.

One judge sentenced the old man to a year in prison, which will stretch to three years if he doesn't give up his court battle.

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