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 An Ariana Media Publication 12/18/2014
 Kabul Court Discovers Forensics

The Wall Street Journal
08/17/2012
By Nathan Hodge

[Printer Friendly Version]

BAGRAM - Inside a Spartan spartan courthouse here, an Afghan judge explained to the prisoner he had just convicted why the proof against him was incontrovertible.

"Since the prophet Adam until today, the fingerprints of every human are unique," the judge lectured a shackled man named Khalid. "Fingerprints are a matter of science, and are undeniable."

They are also a relative novelty in Afghan courts, where convictions are usually based on defendants' confessions—often extracted under duress or even torture. That wasn't so with Khalid, who uses only one name. He went on trial last month at a court complex next to the main U.S.-run prison in Afghanistan, known as the Detention Facility in Parwan, or DFIP.

Mr. Khalid's prosecution hinged on modern forensic techniques, but how deeply the scientific approach to justice has rooted remains unclear.

Located inside the sprawling U.S. military base in Bagram Airfield, the prison and all its Afghan inmates must be transferred to Afghan government custody by Sept. 9. The U.S., which is mentoring the judges and the staff at the DFIP, aim to leave behind a system that can withstand international scrutiny.

"What we want the system to do is to be less reliant upon confession-based systems," said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. James Crawford, who until recently headed the Rule of Law Field Force-Afghanistan. "Forensics is going to be part of that."

An Afghan committee is now reviewing the case files of DFIP's inmates, deciding whether to release them, keep them in administrative detention, or prosecute them. The Wall Street Journal last month was granted unusual access to the trial of Mr. Khalid, a DFIP detainee already transferred to Afghan custody inside at the facility.

Coalition forces captured Mr. Khalid in a military raid in 2011. He was then "biometrically enrolled," with his fingerprints and retina digitally scanned. His fingerprints matched ones on bits of a roadside bomb that hit a coalition military patrol in April 2010, wounding five troops, according to evidence presented by Afghan prosecutors. The bomb was rigged to go off when a victim stepped on or drove over it. Military evidence collectors found one part wrapped inside an old inner tube and lifted fingerprints from tape used to hold the device together.

In an opening statement at the trial, Mr. Khalid maintained his innocence, saying he was an ordinary man who had spent his life working in the fields of his native province.

"I don't have any connection to any armed groups," said Mr. Khalid, a thickly bearded man wearing a common baggy tunic and trousers in white with his prisoner number handwritten in magic marker.

After hearing his sentence—a maximum of 12 years, including time served—Mr. Khalid said he disagreed. A court official signed his thumbprint to a verdict sheet. His attorney didn't immediately say whether he would seek an appeal.

In reading the sentence, the lead judge—who requested anonymity out of fear for his personal safety—asserted the court's independence. The American-led approach is unpopular with some Afghans and central government opponents, who regard them as show trials.

"Nobody—Afghan or foreigner—has the right to interfere in our affairs, to tell us what to do," he said, referring to U.S. military personnel in the courtroom. "According to Afghanistan's law, the judiciary is independent.The foreigners you see sitting here, none of them has the right to interfere in the court's affairs."

It is a fledgling independence, however. While the Afghans ran the trial proceedings without any direct U.S. participation, U.S. advisers helped to prepare case summaries and provided the forensic evidence. U.S. troops also protect the surrounding base.

Other recent high-profile criminal cases in which the U.S. wasn't involved have raised concern internationally about the effectiveness and fairness of Afghanistan's system for investigating and trying terrorism and national-security cases.

In one recent case, Afghanistan's intelligence agency released videotaped confessions of individuals—including two young girls—who allegedly conspired with the Taliban to poison schoolgirls in northern Afghanistan, drawing criticism from the United Nations mission to Afghanistan.

More recently, a military court sentenced an Afghan soldier to death for shooting and killing five French soldiers in a highly publicized incident early this year. The handling of the case prompted rights groups to question the transparency of Afghan courts.

"Afghanistan's justice system in both military and civilian trials remains weak and compromised, in spite of over 10 years of donor assistance," said the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. "It relies heavily on confessions, including some obtained through torture. Use of physical evidence is rudimentary."

U.S. and Afghan officials, who are keen to persuade both a skeptical Afghan public and international observers that Afghanistan will inherit a transparent and fair judiciary system, say DNA evidence and fingerprints represent a potent new tool for trying terrorism suspects.

Less clear, though, is who will collect and process all the masses of biometric data needed that are used to secure such that kind of convictions once the American U.S. troops leave go home. The U.S. military referred questions on the issue long-term biometrics collection to the Afghan interior ministry. The ministry didn't respond to repeated requests to comment.

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