Vol. 81, No. 10, October
Mission Possible: Improving Justice in Afghanistan
In a country where daily life is a
struggle, three Wisconsin attorneys work as teachers
and mentors to help strengthen the rule of law in Afghanistan. The hope
of the Afghan people for
a better quality of life and law inspires these attorneys and leads to
a deeper appreciation of
the U.S. justice system.
Erik Guenther recently returned from six months of training defense
attorneys for the Legal Aid Organization of Afghanistan, Kabul, as part
of the U.S. Department of State's Justice Sector Support Program.
by Dianne Molvig
aw school doesn't teach you how to
react in a hostage situation or how to
recognize an improvised explosive device. But those were skills three
Wisconsin attorneys - Erik Guenther, Melinda Campos, and Jeremy Arn -
had to learn
before reporting for volunteer duty with the Justice Sector Support
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the program's stated
is "to assist the government of Afghanistan in developing and
the country's criminal justice sector, as a means to enable the courts
professionals in the justice sector to deliver fair and effective
the citizens of Afghanistan."
Guenther, Campos, and Arn received two weeks of training in
before leaving for Afghanistan. Their training was, they note, perhaps
stage of a weeding-out process - a last chance to turn back. It gave
clear picture of the risks they'd face; they even wrote their own
The risks are high, these young attorneys acknowledge. But so,
are the rewards.
`A Small Piece in a Very Large Puzzle'
When attorney Erik Guenther got cut off by another motorist while
driving down a
Madison street one day last spring, his initial impulse was to hit the
horn. "I remember
thinking, wait," he recalls. "This guy wasn't going to hit
his brakes, and there was no
explosive device on his rear bumper. I didn't get upset."
Just a few days before this incident, Guenther had returned from
Afghanistan, where for six months he trained Afghan attorneys - and
where every time he got into
a vehicle he faced the possibility of not coming back. It took awhile
to shake that
mentality after returning home on March 23, 2008.
Melinda Campos speaks with students in Kunduz, Afghanistan. She is
the only defense attorney in her group of American lawyers training
criminal investigation police and prosecutors. Campos teaches in the
classroom and mentors students in their workplaces, consulting on actual
"At first it was hard for me to realize I didn't have to think
anymore," Guenther said in a conversation three months later.
"But something I hope stays with me
a long time is an appreciation for what matters. When you're in a
situation where there's
a real risk you might not make it, it helps you keep your priorities
Guenther tries to hold that thought now that he's returned to
his normal daily life
as a criminal defense attorney with Hurley, Burish & Stanton S.C.,
in Madison. He says
he also came home with a deeper appreciation of the U.S. justice system.
"When I walk into a courtroom," he notes, "I know
that a judge is going to let
us appear and listen to my client's side. I feel grateful for all the
hard work other
people did a long time ago to create what is now a mature justice
With a constitution that's just four years old, Afghanistan is in the
of building its justice system. Guenther got a chance to be among those
the ground floor of that effort while serving as a "defense
mentor" with the JSSP. His
primary duty was to train defense attorneys working for the Legal Aid
Afghanistan (LAOA), described by Guenther as "the cream of the
crop of defense lawyers" in
the country. He also helped create curriculum for police, judges, and
In the current Afghan criminal justice system, there are two layers
prosecutors. The first works with its own investigators to look into a
crime and decide whether
to bring charges. Prosecutors in the second level then try the case and
appear in court.
A judge makes the final decision in a criminal matter; there are no
jury trials and
no public defender program. An accused person is allowed to present to
a judge a
statement, which a defense lawyer - perhaps a retired judge or
prosecutor - may have helped
the defendant prepare.
"It's not what we would think of in terms of motion
practice, court appearances,
cross examination, and presenting witnesses on behalf of the
explains. "Those are only recent ideas."
Thus, defendants often have no strong advocate, and no checks
are in place on
prosecutors' and judges' actions. "In practice, you have a system
in which corruption is
rampant," Guenther points out.
As a result, the public lacks trust in the justice system and in
lawyers. Trial dates aren't publicly announced in advance, so there's
no public or media
oversight of trial proceedings, and sometimes even the parties don't
know when a trial will
take place. People taken into custody become suspicious if offered the
services of a
defense attorney; they fear they're being duped.
"Because of the lack of awareness of the role of the defense
explains, "it's tough for those few lawyers doing that kind of
work to operate
effectively. But there are efforts under way to educate people about
their rights under the
constitution." That's enormously difficult, he adds, given the
high rate of illiteracy and
vast areas of the country lacking radio, television, and electricity.
Jeremy Arn (left) teaches prosecutors and criminal investigators
outside Herat, Afghanistan. A local prosecutor (right) holds a
graduation certificate which, according to Arn, "is like gold to
The police support a stronger defense bar because they often face
of wrongdoing, such as stealing during home searches or maltreating
witnesses. "The police, being on the ground, understand the value
of a check on the
prosecutorial function," Guenther notes.
In his classes and one-on-one consulting with defense attorneys,
such topics as how to prepare clients and how to take clients from
rights on paper to being able to exercise those rights. "We also
talked about how to build
credibility with judges - particularly for female attorneys," he
The LAOA staff includes several female attorneys, but that's unusual
Afghanistan's justice and law enforcement circles. Guenther estimates
that overall only about 5
percent of the country's lawyers, judges, police, and corrections
officials are women.
His main frustration during his six-month stint was the
difficulty of getting
even simple things done. "Everything moves more slowly than you'd
like," Guenther says.
"You have limitations in technology. You can't reach people you
need to reach, and
everybody is dealing with security issues."
All along, he kept reminding himself of advice he got before
leaving Madison from
John Vaudreuil, a Madison lawyer with the U.S. Attorney's Office who's
trips abroad on behalf of the Department of Justice to teach in
countries with emerging
legal systems. Appreciate the baby steps, Vaudreuil advised Guenther,
and don't expect
"I was a small piece in a very large puzzle," Guenther
says of his service in
Afghanistan. He predicts it will take 15 to 20 years of sustained effort
international community to help the country establish a successful
justice system aligned with
What most encouraged Guenther while he was there was the hope of the
He talked to many his age (early 30s) who had lived their entire lives
in a war zone,
and everyone has family and friends who were killed or injured.
During a JSSP-sponsored Justice Training Program in Bamiyan,
Afghanistan, small groups of judges, police, and lawyers worked to
develop cooperation. More than 60 people participated in the training.
Still, Guenther notes, "These are people who remain hopeful
their country can
improve and their quality of life can be better for generations to
come. That was inspiring."
He also found that the Afghan people are grateful to those who come
They place a high value on family, Guenther points out, and they
appreciate that foreign
attorneys are willing to leave their homes for many months to work in
"They are a good-humored, kind people," he observes,
"and it's a beautiful country. That's
not what we see in the news."
`It's Amazing People Want to Learn'
Melinda Campos was apprehensive when she first walked into a
classroom in her role as
a "justice advisor" in the Kunduz province of northeastern
Afghanistan in February
2008. She wasn't sure her class - made up of male police investigators
mostly in their 30s and 40s - would accept a female instructor.
"I thought the first day they wouldn't look at me, or they'd
walk out of the
classroom," she says. "They weren't like that at all. I've
been surprised. They shake my
hand every day. They talk with me during breaks in our classes. I
didn't think I'd be
received this way."
Speaking on the telephone from Kunduz in July on the day before
the graduation of
her first group of students, Campos noted, "I'm going to miss these
Campos, who's been a public defender in Madison since 2004,
signed up for service
with the JSSP because she saw it "as the opportunity of a
lifetime," she says. It is also,
of course, a life-endangering situation. "I'll not sugarcoat
it," she says. "We're in
a danger zone for sure, but we have security. You get used to how it is
here, but you
don't become complacent about it. You have to have a level head all the
The Panjshir Valley (literally, the "Valley of Five
Lions") is lush, beautiful, and rich in history. American
reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan have sparked a development boom in
the valley, but travel is not without risk.
She teaches and lives in a secure compound in the city of Kunduz, the
capital, along with about 100 U.S. military personnel, people working
government contractors, and professionals from other coalition
countries who provide police
training and help to build infrastructure.
Besides teaching in the compound, Campos conducts training
sessions in the cities
of Baghlan and Takhar, each about an hour's drive from Kunduz. "The
biggest risk is
when we're traveling," Campos says. "We have to wear
bulletproof vests and helmets when
we're on the road, and we're in an armored vehicle. Our security team is
Still, "It is nice to get out," Campos adds. "The
scenery is so beautiful."
The teaching team Campos works with on a daily basis includes
two other American
lawyers, three Afghan lawyers, and three interpreters. The hope is that
lawyers can carry on this work in the future. "We're trying to
Campos says. She is the only defense attorney in her group. In fact, she
entire Kunduz region, with a population of nearly 600,000, has only
seven defense attorneys.
The recently enacted Advocates Law will create a formal defense
bar and a public
defender system in Afghanistan. It also will establish new consumer
Currently anyone, even someone with no training, can hang out a shingle
claiming to be an attorney.
In her first six months, Campos has been training criminal
and prosecutors. "We're trying to establish cooperation and
coordination between the
two groups," Campos says. She hopes to gain approval to do a
second six-month stretch
in Afghanistan and eventually to get a chance to train defense
The teaching team Melinda Campos works with includes legal
interpreter Shirullah Habibi (pictured) and two other interpreters, two
other American lawyers, and three Afghan lawyers.
She describes the training she provides as information sharing, in
directions. The instructors "brainstorm with the students,"
she says, "about steps to take to
curb corruption, to make sure cases are investigated correctly."
Class discussions cover
a range of topics: crime-scene investigations, search and seizure
handling domestic violence incidents, and more.
In addition to teaching in the classroom, Campos also mentors
students in their
workplaces, consulting on actual cases. "We want them to know we'll
make the effort to
visit them," she says, "and it's good for us to see the
reality of the issues they're facing."
The police and prosecutors in her class work in tough conditions
in various parts
of the Kunduz province. Their offices are sparsely furnished and have no
conditioning. Supplies are lacking. Even acquiring a few legal pads can
The country's decimated infrastructure and economy add to the
problems. "Daily life
is a struggle here," Campos observes. "It's amazing people
come to class and want to learn."
All those in Campos's class are literate, which she says is
uncommon among police
and prosecutors in the Kunduz province. Many educated Afghans fled the
country in the
past few decades, so less-educated people had to fill police and
Enhancing their professionalism is one goal of the training Campos and
Although it may seem odd to Americans that lawyers are unable to read
Campos explains that many Afghan prosecutors fulfill different roles
than their U.S.
counterparts. They're criminal investigators, not courtroom attorneys,
and they can
perform their duties well, even though they're illiterate.
In her experiences in Afghanistan to date, Campos says she's
most encouraged by
the country's people. "They have a lot of pride in their
nation," she notes. "They want
to make changes, so it's not an issue of them not wanting change. But
this is a very
poor society. We have to try to give them a boost."
In addition to teaching classes, Jeremy Arn (left) works with the
monitoring prosecutor at the Herat Men's Prison. Next to Arn, a
prisoner, who works as a cobbler at the prison, repairs Arn's shoe.
`They Thank Me for Coming Here'
Jeremy Arn's experiences since he arrived in Afghanistan last March
have been much
like those of Guenther and Campos, with some extra danger added.
"Things have begun to heat
up here in the past month or so," he wrote in an August email from
Herat, a city of
600,000 in northwest Afghanistan. He was answering questions about his
experiences via an
email exchange, given the poor connections in Herat to the Internet and
by cell phone to
On assignment as a "justice advisor" with the JSSP,
Arn works and lives with some
200 other people in a secure compound just outside the Herat city
limits. Three times in
the month preceding his August email the compound had been the target of
mortar attacks, which sent Arn scrambling from his bed to a nearby
At such times he wonders what he's doing here, Arn admits.
"The questioning gets
intense when I'm sitting in a bunker in the middle of the night."
Arn is on leave from the Racine County District Attorney's
office, where he's
worked for four years. In Herat, he's teaching prosecutors and criminal
are locals and some come from southern provinces to which Arn and his
teaching team -
including two other American attorneys, three Afghan attorneys, and
three Afghan interpreters
- can't go because of security concerns.
The compound's security is in the hands of Gurkhas, ex-military
Nepalese who are
descendants of warriors and have a reputation for their loyalty,
battle skills. Arn and his two fellow American attorneys have a personal
security team of
five Gurkhas. "I have no doubt that each one of them would take a
bullet for me," Arn
says. "They are also the nicest, most humble people I've ever
Besides holding classes in the compound, Arn and his teaching
by armored vehicle a couple of times a week to the prosecutor's office
headquarters downtown. On these and other ventures outside the compound,
Arn dons a
bulletproof vest and helmet.
"My job while riding," he says, "is to look out
my side of the vehicle for IEDs
[improvised explosive devices] and suicide bombers. Everyone is
completely silent during
the ride. A 10-minute ride feels like an hour. I usually feel physically
drained by the
time we reach our destination, just from sitting there, watching."
Erik Guenther sits atop a rusting Russian Army tank in the Panjshir
Valley, a relic of the 1979-89 Soviet-Afghan War. The Panjshir was the
only part of Afghanistan that successfully resisted Soviet control. Some
sources estimate that close to 60 percent of all Soviet casualties of
the Soviet-Afghan War occurred in the Panjshir Valley.
His students are "very bright and most know the Afghan penal
code and criminal
procedure codes inside and out," Arn says. "Many have been
prosecuting longer than I've
been alive." Those who come in for training from the southern
provinces have no more than
high school educations.
The vast majority of his students are men. Still, the chief
prosecutor of the
Herat province is Maria Bashir, the only female chief prosecutor in
Afghanistan. "She is a
very brave woman," Arn notes. "She has had numerous threats
on her and her family's
lives since she was appointed by President Karzai. She's not afraid to
corruption that runs rampant here."
Arn's classes cover diverse criminal law topics. Key underlying
improving police-prosecutor coordination and combating corruption - a
huge problem, Arn says.
Corruption feeds public mistrust of law enforcement officials, and thus
many crimes go
unreported. "As a result, the security situation worsens," Arn
But, he adds, when an official takes a bribe, it's often a
matter of survival,
rather than moral failure. Prosecutors, for instance, make $65 a month.
Many have to hold down
a second job to get by. The U.S. Department of State pays prosecutors
a $5-per-day stipend for attending JSSP classes. Still, when Arn told
his class about
the stipend, some raised their hands to protest it was too much.
"These guys are the good guys here," he says.
"They truly want their country to
improve. After all the war, all the regime changes, all the corruption,
mistrust from the public, all the danger that comes with working in
their jobs, they still do
it. Day in and day out. For $65 a month! And they continually thank me
for coming here. It
is very humbling."
One of his most dismaying experiences has been discovering the
students face in their jobs. For instance, criminal investigators and
southern provinces must take taxis to crime scenes, paying out of their
own pockets, because
they have no other means of transportation. Plus, because they're often
first on the
scene, they must provide emergency medical care to those who need it,
are nonexistent. During the JSSP training, "We had a doctor come in
to teach a
first-responder class," Arn says. "We also provided our
students with first-aid kits, which none
of them had, to take back to their offices."
A key challenge for Arn is impressing on his students the
correctly applying the Afghan penal code and criminal procedure codes.
prosecutions sometimes become a hybrid of Sharia law, derived from the
Koran, and Afghan secular law.
For example, running away is often prosecuted; even though it's
not a crime
according to the Afghan penal code, it's against Sharia law. Arn notes
that in a recent class,
a student asked whether he should arrest a man for attempted adultery
man, while waiting in line at the market, turned around and winked at
the woman behind
him. Arn stresses to his students that they must assemble evidence to
prove their cases.
"There is a long way to go here," Arn says. "But
I have seen progress in the way
most of our students are thinking about and applying the law. That's
what has kept me here."