In Badakhshan, defence counsel up against odds
FAIZABAD (Pajhwok): Defence counsel in northeastern Badakhshan province complain they cannot properly plead cases of their clients, particularly petitions concerning violence against women, due to threats from warlords and other influential figures.
Subsequently, the attorneys allege, women’s rights continue to be trampled in the backward province. Taking up front on these powerful gunmen is fraught with dangers. Thousands of such cases have been disposed, but not without risk.
Some of the lawyers, living in a shelter house called Abode of Peace, are fighting cases of violence on behalf of inmates. The take a calculated risk in raising their voices for oppressed women, who have left their homes as a result of domestic tensions.
Maryam Amwaj, Abode of Peace head, says they have the services of three defence attorneys at their disposal. They are fighting a legal battle for the protection of women who have been dragged to courts. Set up four years ago, Abode of Peace offers shelter to about 50 women and girls forced from homes by a variety of threats.
In an exclusive interview with Pajhwok Afghan News, she claims: “Our lawyers have been threatened several times over the telephone. In one instance, a rival party threatened a defence lawyer with death if he continued to plead the case of a woman inmate.”
Insecurity, particularly in districts, is another source of concern for the lawyers. An incident has to be adjudicated in the district where it occurs, but poor security and the presence of local strongmen and warlords hamper such litigation in a number of districts.
“We have no law and no one to rely on in pursuing our rights. Ob security is also absent,” she remarks, explaining cases of runaway girls, separation and engagement refusals cannot be pleaded in line with the law in district courts -- thanks to the undiluted power of warlords.
Judges are unable to decide women’s cases, which are often filed in the main provincial court. It is a long-drawn-out process, because such referrals have to be approved by the Supreme Court in Kabul. This situation is clearly against women, she insists.
Shahr-i-Bozarg resident Aasia, allegedly beaten by her husband, says NGO lawyer Sahila fought her case without fee. “In accordance with the court verdict, I have got divorce from my spouse. I’m so pleased with the lawyer’s solid cooperation and thank her from the core of my heart.”
Mah Gul, another woman from Yaftal district, suffered frequent violence at the hands of her in-laws. Consequence, she filed for divorce and won her case. She feels indebted to her defence lawyer for rescuing her.
Defence counsel Sahila, who has pleaded the cases of 30 victims of domestic violence in different districts. Ten of these cases have already been decided, with the rest still pending.
Her colleague Faizur Rahman Faez, who has been in the profession for five years, has been pleading women’s cases over the past 18 months. A graduate from the Fiq and Shariah Faculty of Herat University, claims pleading 70 cases from Shuhada, Jurm, Kasham and Ragh districts during the 18-month period.
Forty of the cases related to domestic violence, separation, denial of sustenance, elopement, rape and murder have been disposed of. He has received evidence of injustice against women, including inordinate delays in litigation, from his district.
Kabul University graduate Mohammad Jan, who has been serving a leg services NGO for two years, is also pursuing women-related cases. He offers free legal services to children and women faced with violence, pleading at least five such cases every month in the Badakhshan Attorney Office and courts. The number of cases he has argued is 50.
Last year, the Department of Women’s Affairs says, it filed 131 such petitions in courts. They involved four murders, two rape incidents, six instances of illicit affairs, five divorce cases, 10 separation appeals, three engagement abolition cases, six runaway instances, two incidents of forced marriage, three petitions against sustenance refusal and four cases of beatings.
Women’s Affairs Director Zofnon Hassam Nateq acknowledges continued violence against females. Her department is trying to raise awareness among the masses regarding the protection of women’s rights. She identifies a shortage of women judges, lack of awareness about legal and religious issues, poverty and social limitations as huge challenges.
Farzana Farhat, head of the Badakhshan Independent Defence Lawyers Society, says 35 defence attorneys, including five women, are members of the body. There is one defence lawyer each in Baharak, Kasham, Orgu, Teshkan and Ishkashim districts. But there is no lawyer in other districts for security reasons.
Hidayatullah Rasuli, a defence counsel, has been beaten and abused in line of duty. “Security forces, even if we had informed them, would have never supported us and hence the establishment of our society…but we have been receiving many threats over the phone.”
Undeterred by warnings of severe consequences, he has filed 20 petitions against land grab and forcible eviction from homes. The cases took two years to be decided, with some accused acquitted and others jailed for 12-16 years.
Amwaj concurs: “Some of the accused even stormed into our office, warning our legal advisors and lawyers. We try to convince them that we cooperate with their sisters and wives in response to their demands. But there is little support for law and that’s why our lawyers feel threatened.”
A member of the lawyers’ body, Ahmad Farid Mudaber, also alleges that accused parties often phoned him to keep out of cases against them. But he ignored the threatening calls and has been pressing on with his jobs for the last two years. He has since pleaded at least five cases despite being up against many odds.
Providing the needy people with free legal services for the past six years, Sibghatullah Arian says he has not been hindered directly yet. But he did receive threatening phone calls. He is currently heading the NGO called NSAO, which was established within the framework of the Trade Ministry in 2010.
Looking at its resources, the NGO offers the deserving individuals free legal services. With a team of seven legal experts, including three women, the organisation has investigated the cases of up to 600 women and child victims of violence. Eighty of them were decided this year.
Separately, Rasul says there is inadequate coordination between independent and government-appointed defence counsel in Badakhshan. Cases should be handled by the lawyers whom they are related to, he suggests. For example, corruption cases ought to be argued by independent defence counsel, who regularly pay taxes.
But Maulvi Hafizur Rahman Naqi, a snbior appeal court official, rejects allegations regarding the involvement of senior judicial officials in graft or crimes. He also denies hiring of legal experts by the Department of Justice to plead their cases. They provide legal assistance to the poor accused who meet the required legal formalities. However, he does not rule out anomalous practices, such as abuse of power, by certain officials in defending the accused.
Appellant Court Chief Judge Abdul Wali Qazi believes the justice sector will be unable to work professionally in the absence of defence lawyers. “We need judges, attorneys, prosecutors and defence lawyers, who should resolve to protect the rights of Badakhshan residents and address their cases in line with the law.”
Attorney Office head Khan Mohammad Noori says the criminal code gives the accused, who has been jailed for more than five years, the right to have a defence lawyer. But several districts are without such legal brains.
He says 28 districts do not have offices for attorneys, a problem affecting their performance. The defence attorneys’ society, which has been given a room at the urban court, is also concerned at lack of facilities at the district level.
A German organisation has pledged to fund the construction of a two-storey office for them, but the promise is yet to be kept. The Municipality in Faizabad has not allocated land for the project so far, says the society, whose capacity-building is supported by GIZ.
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