Saturday, November 24, 2007

All in a Day's Work

Most of what I do in Afghanistan I simply cannot talk about for reasons of operational security or due to solicitor/client privilege. However, this week I would like to talk about some of the work I do in very general terms in order to give an understanding of some of the challenges that I face on an almost daily basis.

Although I am tasked to mentor Afghan military legal advisors in a number of specific areas, the majority of the work that I do is in the area of military justice. This is for a variety of reasons. First, it is the area that requires the most constant attention. Unlike other areas that I am tasked to mentor in, the military criminal justice system regularly deals with real people. Any inattention to the individual cases of accused suspects almost invariably results in lengthy pre-trial detention and works against the concept of the fair administration of justice. Second, the Afghan military has very little knowledge in areas of law outside of their justice system and so their legal advisors naturally tend to gravitate toward this area. Although long term plans will focus on other areas such as administrative law or the law of armed conflict, these concepts are simply too foreign at this point to attempt to engage in any meaningful discussion in these areas.

As a mentor, it is not for me to insert my view and form a part of the decision making process. My role in the process is much more subtle. Frequently, I am asked for my view or to assist in the interpretation of the law to help them reach their own decision. Were I to simply dictate what course of action to pursue, then I would be frustrating the long-term solution of making the Afghans self-sufficient. It is a tricky balance to achieve. As a mentor, you want to guide the Afghans towards making the proper decision but you have to be conscious not to influence them too much in order that it is them making the decision and not you.

So far the work has been fascinating. I regularly work with prosecutors, defence counsel as well as military judges and other legal advisors in order to administer justice to individuals accused of committing an offence. Other times, I work with the commanders of a suspect in order to ensure that the commander properly administers a just punishment that is in line with the offence. Accomplishing this goal can be frustrating. Many times, accused soldiers are not provided with the required procedural safeguards and many others are placed in pre-trial confinement for lengthy periods of time with no promise of an immediate or speedy resolution to their case.

The nature of the cases are extremely varied as well. Thus far, I have mentored on cases from offences that are minor in nature to various forms of assault, weapons violations, drug offences and even manslaughter and murder. Each case comes with its own unique set of circumstances and presents a new challenge. On several occasions I have visited the military detention facility and have spoken with the accused suspects in order to ensure that they are being treated in a just and humane manner, that they are aware of their legal rights and to ensure that they have had adequate occasion to speak with the legal representative. It is both an eye-opening and rewarding experience. It is all a part of advancing justice one day at a time.

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