Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Afghan court underscores governance challenge

July 5, 2010
(British Former soldier Bill Shaw (L) sits alongside colleague Maiwand Limar in the Afghan anti-corruption appeals court at the start of his appeal against a two-year conviction for bribery. Shaw's chaotic court appearance underscores the challenge of improving the access to reliable justice for ordinary Afghans.)

(British Former soldier Bill Shaw (L) sits alongside colleague Maiwand Limar in the Afghan anti-corruption appeals court at the start of his appeal against a two-year conviction for bribery. Shaw's chaotic court appearance underscores the challenge of improving the access to reliable justice for ordinary Afghans.)

International aid workers in Afghanistan — and even new U.S. commander General David Petraeus – like to talk of building governance capacity, which basically means making sure the country runs its schools, courts, health services and so on properly.

But if you want a glimpse of the civil challenges still facing Afghanistan nine years after the ousting of the Taliban, you could do worse than talk to British ex-soldier Bill Shaw.

Shaw was on Sunday acquitted on a two-year conviction for trying to pay a $25,000 bribe for the release of two vehicles impounded by the Afghan intelligence services over vague registration irregularities.

But the British-funded anti-corruption appeals court which delivered Shaw the happy news is a fine example for how chaotic and arbitrary the governance institutions can be, especially for ordinary Afghans.

Shaw’s appeal took place in the cramped sitting room of a senior judge in stifling heat and opened in chaos after prosecutors failed to show up.

Even when underway after hurried phone calls from the judge under glass-leaf chandeliers in the court lobby, proceedings were as far from most courts elsewhere as can be imagined.

Legal arguments were interrupted as chairs were found and dragged in mid-proceeding for Western watchers, including British Embassy staff and journalists, and soon fell into just argument as ordinary Afghans chimed in off the sidelines, shouting protests at the judge.

Most argument consisted of wild “I have seen”-styled assertions about normal practices in other countries that seemed to have been garnered from TV or magazines.

“It’s madcap,” a rueful Shaw said to work colleagues and supporters at one point on the opening day.

Even the location was madcap.

The court was built opposite the sprawling multi-home compound of notorious former warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum in Kabul’s upmarket but gaudy Sher Pur area, surrounded by mansions known as “Poppy Palaces” because of local suspicion they were built with drug money or millions of dollars paid by the United States to warlords who helped the U.S. troops remove the Taliban from power.

I have covered plenty of courts in Indonesia, which also have a patchy record of judicial fairness and a laissez faire approach, but nothing like this.

The judge took no notes and consulted no past cases. Shaw, who protested his innocence from the start and said he thought he was paying a legitimate fine, was probably acquitted because he had plenty of western media attention and quiet embassy backing.

His Afghan colleague, bodyguard and translator Maiwand Limar, was not so lucky. Limar’s two-year sentence was downgraded to eight months, prompting protests he had been treated unfairly in comparison to Shaw, for whom he simply worked.

General Petraeus, at a ceremony in which he took command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan on Sunday, trumpeted the gains made in governance and quality of life for Afghans since the ousting of the Taliban, including schooling for girls and health advances, plus the post-Taliban proliferation of mobile phones.

But Shaw’s run-in with anti-corruption tribunal established as part of efforts to curb Afghanistan’s entrenched graft problem shows there is a long way to go yet before the courts gain the trust of ordinary people.

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