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One week in Badghis

Saturday, February 3, 2007 by Marianne Elliott

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This week I’ve had the wonderful pleasure of working with a good friend, the lovely, hardworking and very competent Kate. It has been a busy and often challenging week as I simultaneously:

  • managed the logistics for the workshop Kate has been teaching on criminal justice, with a focus on gender issues;
  • delivered my own 'introduction to human rights' workshop for all the staff of our new Badghis office;
  • monitored and supported the Attorney General’s “Campaign Against Torture” as it was carried out in Badghis; and
  • followed up on a series of individual human rights cases with police, prosecutors and the Chief Judge.

But despite the heavy workload, the physical challenges of a mission to Badghis and the mental and emotional strain, it has been a wonderful week. Firstly, and most importantly, I've been doing all this alongside Kate, whio is delightful company and a caring friend. Secondly, I feel this week as though we are achieving something positive, Thirdly, and possibly as a result of the previous two points, I’ve had a week mostly free from the oppressive presence of the black dog.

Warning – this is a long post – it has been a long and very full week!

The emotional strain noted above comes from dealing with the individual cases. One related to eight men charged with the murders of five health clinic staff but who have now been detained for months and months beyond the legal time limits. These murders sent deep ripples of fear and sadness through the development community in Afghanistan when they took place last year. The victims were Afghan staff of an NGO running health clinics in an otherwise unserved district of Badghis, they were shot and killed by armed men who burst into the clinic compound and opened fire. Eigth months later, after the charges against these suspects were found to be without substance at the primary court, they are still detained and awaiting the hearing of the appeal by the National Security Directorate. I lobbied the NSD Prosecutor and the Chief Judge and received assurances that a trial date will be set this week. My concern is not only for the rights of the detainees (although this is a serious concern especially given their aquittal at the primary court trial) but also for the families of the victims who badly need some sort of resolution.

Another difficult case was that of a young women who died after burning herself in desperation after years of domestic violence. Her parents do not want to press charges against the husband. Fortunately in Afghan law they don’t need to, the police and prosecutors have an obligation to investigate wherever there is an indication that a crime has taken place, but sometimes they need a little bit of encouragement. Kate helped me explain to the prosecutors the legal basis on which they could proceed – with charges of assault being relatively easy to make out, and a possibility even of a more complicated but not impossible charge of murder or incitement to suicide.

The workshop Kate was teaching has been my pet project for months now – ever since I made my first mission to Badghis. I found that it was difficult to intervene with police and prosecutors on many cases, especially cases involving women, because they were not necessarily familiar with the relevant provisions of Afghan law, including the Constitution.

Several misconceptions were particularly widespread – including the belief that article 130 of the Constitution gives police and prosecutors the right to refer to Hanafi fiqh jurisprudence (interpretations of the Quran by some designated experts) if there is no relevant provision in the law. In fact this article gives such a right only to the courts.

Another widely held view, and one which is usually based on the article 130 argument, is that it is a crime for women to run away from home and that they can be arrested, detained and prosecuted as such. There is no such crime in the Penal Code, and the so-called “crime” is derived from a widely held interpretation of Hanafi fiqh – relying on article 130 of the Constitution.

Okay, I’m writing my way into a fairly complicated legal discussion here which would require me to discuss the different kinds of crimes in Sharia (Islamic) law, and the particular way in which these three different types of crime (ta’zir, qasas, and hadood) are treated in Afghan law. It is an extremely interesting legal discussion, but probably only to criminal lawyers, Sharia scholars and human rights lawyers.

So instead I will summarise by saying that the applicable law in Afghanistan (applying as it does key principles of Sharia law) provides protection for women in many of the types of cases that I often encounter in my monitoring work. Many police and to a lesser but still significant extent, prosecutors are not familiar with Afghan law. If they do know some of the key provisions, they have often never had access to a clear legal analysis of how different sections interact with each other.

In my regular monitoring work I often try to raise awareness of these provisions on a case-by-case basis. But obviously a more systematic approach would be better. The Attorney General’s office in Kabul is currently developing a national training and professional development strategy, which will hopefully bring a consistent and national approach to all training for prosecutors. But after a year in Afghanistan, approximately half of which I spent in Kabul and the other half working in some of the countries most remote and neglected provinces (like Badghis and Ghor), I’ve realised that waiting for national or centralised programmes to reach us out here is going to be a very long wait. So I decided to make it my goal to bring the best trainers I could find to Badghis and Ghor.

Kate is one of the best, and I'm not only saying that because I am so fond of her, I saying that as a lawyer and someone with experience of training. Not only is she qualified in Sharia law, common law and civil law, she is also intimately familiar with Afghan law and she is a skilled teacher, using participatory methods, like roles plays and case studies, to create a really effective learning experience.

My organization doesn’t organise workshops of this kind, so I have no budget for it. Kate’s organization has provided her time and the workshop materials, but everything else – including our accommodation and meals here in Badghis, the tea and sweets, the paper, the pens, and the lovely colour-printed certificates were paid for by Kathryn and I personally. I asked my friends at the Spanish PRT to help out by providing a cooked lunch for the participants each day and they did a great job. The Department of Women’s Affairs gave us a room for two days and then the provincial hospital let us use there large meeting room for the rest of the week.

The participants all paid for their own transport to travel from the districts into Qala-e-Naw, the provincial centre. I’m not sure how they were accommodated while in town for the week, I hope that the Office of the Prosecutor and the Provincial Chief of Police helped with that. We didn’t pay per diems which is a common practice here since the official salaries are too low for people to actually survive on them. All in all it was a budget workshop and Kate and I would not have been surprised if turn out had been low as a result.

Instead we had the provincial head of the CID, as well as District Chiefs of Police and CID Chiefs from almost all the districts in Badghis. We also had District Prosecutors from all districts and a good delegation from the provincial Office of the Prosecutor. We also had one female Provincial Council member, someone I had met on previous visits because she takes on a role in advocating for women in the legal system here in Badghis, and two senior staff from the Department of Women’s Affairs.

Put simply, we had everyone we could have hoped for, all the people who have the power to choose whether or not to arrest and prosecute a man alleged to be beating his wife, or a woman who has been accused of farar az manzel or running away from home. They are also the people who will decide how to deal with a case of rape – which does not exist as a separate crime in the Penal Code, but can be prosecuted under zina (sex outside of marriage) provisions – and who will need to decide whether or not to also prosecute the rape victim for zina (not uncommon).

So after months of battling some administrative and substantive barriers within my own organization, and then several false starts when bad weather preventing Kate travelling from Kabul to Herat, she finally arrived last week. We had a lovely Friday together in Herat during which I got to play tour guide and we also enjoyed the relatively balmy weather (it seems the “big cold” is over in Herat, Payman who cooks at our guesthouse tell me so).

We visited the famous minarets of Herat and Kate took some lovely photos of the guardian, and of the graves in the shrine next to the minarets. The graves are those of the son of Timur and his wife, a godly woman to whom this shrine is dedicated, and their three children.

I also took Kate to my personal favorite, this monument to the ordinary people of Afghanistan who fought against the Soviet occupiers. There are, of course, many different views about the different episodes of Afghanstan's history and I try to avoid giving the impression that I understand any of them well enough to have formed my own. I simply love this monument for it's audacity and it's creativity. Whose idea was it, I wonder, to create a monument out of an actual Soviet tank by simply adding these figures with their pitchforks and their determined faces.

On Saturday morning, after a great meeting with the Head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission who was so impressed by Kate that I am hoping I get some credit just for being the one who brought her to town, we set out for Badghis.

I have often felt when driving out on road missions that this part of my job feels much more like a mini-vacation. Sure the roads are bone-jangling and there are no public toilets along the 6-7 hour journey (hence the photo of me walking off into the empty distance), but check out this scenery!

We’ve been in Badghis almost a week now and since this post is growing far too long, I’ll just give you a few vignettes.

The head of the CID from one remote district bumped into an Afghan colleague of mine after two days in the workshop and told him “I have learned so much. I now know that it is not a crime for a woman to run away from home and I swear to God that I will never again arrest a woman for this reason”.

After a guest lecture from our friends in the civilian component of the Spanish PRT (a nurse and a lawyer) on forensic medicine (including the unreliability of virginity tests, for which I give up big respect to my fantastic assistant who had to translate this difficult session) several of the prosecutors asked the nurse if he would come back to give them a more comprehensive workshop on these issues.

One night I watched as Kate spent several hours, until 10 o’clock at night, perfecting the design of the completion certificates. She understands that these certificates will be treasured by all participants and will become a feature of their curriculum vitae. She also understood that some colour and good quality card would be considered a sign of the importance of the workshop.

Every single moment of the 'introduction to human rights' workshops I ran for our new staff was a gift. They were open to everyone, including the security guards, the drivers, the radio operators, and the cleaners. Along with the pleasure of getting to know them all a bit better I was very grateful for a wonderful illustrated version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights published by our head office in Kabul.

The images are so well conceived and executed that the participants who couldn't read were still able to follow. In fact, one of the my favorite moments was when I directed everyone to the page which set out the right to have an effective remedy for violations of the rights set out in the Declaration and asked the participants what they thought the State was obliged to do based on this right. One of the female cleaners was the first to respond, describing perfectly what she saw in the picture and in doing so giving an excellent answer.

Another highlight was when I gave a scenario in which I was monitoring a human rights violation in Qala-e-Naw and asked the participants to tell me everything I was doing wrong. This story caused much amusement, and even the shyest participant (a lovely, gentle security guard who was also illiterate) found the confidence to make a good point about how such monitoring should be conducted.

My amazing Human Rights Assistant, R, and I would finish up the two workshops each afternoon and then go off to do our monitoring work – visiting the prison, interviewing victims, meeting with the prosecutors, the Department of Women’s Affairs and eventually the Chief Judge. After one meeting we were walking back to the compound in the falling dusk and I asked R if he was tired. He smiled and told me that he gets tired when he feels we are not making any difference. But if he sees that things have moved forward even one centimetre for one person then he is not tired. I knew exactly what he meant.

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11 Responses to "One week in Badghis"

  1. Colorsonmymind says:

    Oh darling your post made me dance when I haven’t wanted to dance in a day or so.I get all filled up, warm and fuzzy and teary eyed reading what you are doing.I admire and appreciate what you do for human kind and women.It is tremendous and wonderful and so brave.Thank you from the bottom of my heart.Love you

  2. homeinkabul says:

    Both interesting and inspiring. It shows that if relevant workshops are offered, the people will come! It warms my heart, especially after the Parliament debacle…I hope we get to meet when I come back to Kabul.

  3. Regina Clare Jane says:

    Frieda- I am just overwhelmed by the work you do! You make such a difference in people’s lives. You are surely blessed by this opportunity and for someone so young to start out their lives doing such good things… it’s just amazing. I am so glad that this week was fulfilling and that the black dog was kept at bay. Being with your friend, Kate sounds like it was both uplifting and heartfelt and I am grateful that things may be changing in Afghanistan, slowly but surely, for the women who live there- because of you and others like you!It blows my mind that a raped woman can also be charged with a crime… God bless you, Frieda dear…

  4. Paris Parfait says:

    This post is fascinating – reminds me of so many times in rural areas in Jordan, when people (especially women) were unsure of the law and their rights. I recently saw Asma Khader, a human rights lawyer and women’s rights champion on Al Jazeera’s English news and was pleased to see their work is continuing in Jordan and elsewhere in the region.It’s wonderful that your workshop was so successful and that so many people have donated their time, effort and skills to help make it all come together. No doubt you’ve given many people hope, now that they’re armed with knowledge! Knowledge can be a powerful thing, especially when you’re impoverished and desperate for solutions to desperate situations. The work you and other human rights workers and lawyers do is so important. Thank you for sharing these stories of hope. xo

  5. Paris Parfait says:

    And goodness, where is my head today – the photos are amazing, especially the one of the Afghan gentleman standing in the sunlight and shadows – rather a metaphor for life in Afghanistan these days. Thank you for your incredible work!

  6. Frieda says:

    I just discovered you…what an inspiration you are! We share the same name and I hope you know that “Frieda” means peace and that is exactly what you are being. May God continue to bless you with this gift you have. I am also Armenian from Iran but live in the US, and I know that region very well and how hard it is to see a progress. thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I will be visiting again.

  7. homeinkabul says:

    Btw, If you do want to get into the complicated legal discussion – I really would like to hear it…Maybe after my exam? Take care

  8. Mardougrrl says:

    This post is AMAZING–you are a powerful force for GOOD in this world…I am positively inspired! And I even learned something here (about the different applications of the different laws, Sharia and others, depending on the person and context–I did not know that!).And the photos are gorgeous.

  9. [a} says:

    Gosh, this was a fascinating read. It’s inspiring and interesting and just shows how HARD you guys have to work. Someday I’d like to do what you’re doing…and make a real difference.xoxo

  10. emma says:

    Frida, this post provided me with a bit of light in the midst of some very dark moments. You’re rather remarkable; I hope you understand this.

  11. Margaret says:

    One centimeter moves can be huge! Thanks for caring about the rights of women.

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