In Afghanistan, laws of Islam are a constant

Justice: Officials say they'll adhere to centuries-old tenets `until the end of the world.'

April 24, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - Wali Mohamed has spent weeks in a dank 5-by-8-foot prison cell at Kabul Provincial Jail, let out only for his five-times-a-day prayers and visits to the toilet. He gets a loaf of bread at breakfast, a handful of rice at lunch and a bowl of soup at dinner. Whenever authorities get around to giving him a trial, he's likely to receive a long prison term.

The 25-year-old potato farmer's crime? He's accused of having an illicit love affair.

The barefoot Mohamed, a father of three, claims he didn't even know the married woman in the case.

"I haven't committed any crime," he says.

Here in Afghanistan, a legal system dating to the seventh century and the Prophet Muhammad will be the judge of that. Though the Taliban and their public executions have come and gone, the country still relies on the traditional Shariah law of Islam.

"From the beginning of Islam until now, Shariah has been the law," says Judge Mohamed Azim Jalili, 75, a deputy to the chief judge in Afghanistan's Supreme Court, who resembles an Old Testament prophet in his silver beard, white turban and black cloak.

"It is part of Islam," he says. "Until the end of the world, it will exist."

Afghan officials say they will apply Shariah law more fairly and humanely than the Taliban did. They say there have been no stonings or whippings since the Taliban collapsed. But those punishments will be used again someday, several Afghan officials predicted, for flagrant and repeat offenders.

As part of the Bonn agreement reached last fall, Afghanistan's interim government was supposed to create a commission to plan the rebuilding of the criminal justice system and the protection of human rights. The commission has still not been named.

The resulting confusion has trapped prisoners such as Wali Mohamed. Tall and soft-spoken, he stands with his arms behind his back in his tiny cell, with its dusty carpet and pencil drawings of tanks and fighter jets on the wall. He shares the space with two other inmates.

If found guilty, Mohamed could be stoned to death. But the evidence in his case doesn't meet the strict standard set for Shariah adultery cases. To convict someone, there must be four Muslim male eyewitnesses to the act. On the other hand, prisoners here are presumed guilty until proved innocent. Afghan authorities predict Mohamed will receive a stiff five- to seven-year sentence.

"It is harsh," concedes Ghulam Mohamed Dareeze, a law professor, author and former law school dean at Kabul University. "But here, according to tradition, it is a serious crime. It is a very big shame for that family. He must be put in prison."

In their zeal to enforce Islamic law, the Taliban publicly chopped off the hands of thieves and whipped drug dealers. Relatives of victims shot convicted murderers in crowded stadiums. These gruesome spectacles outraged the world.

But Shariah law - a system used in a handful of Muslim states - ruled Afghanistan long before the Taliban came, and law enforcement officials here say it will continue to do so long after their collapse.

Afghan traditions also affect the law. Courts and tribal leaders have sanctioned so-called honor killings: any close relative who finds a man and woman having sex outside of marriage has the right to kill them both.

The woman Wali is accused of having an affair with was shot to death by her brother-in-law. He is being held at the Kabul Provincial Jail on murder charges, but only because he didn't catch his sister-in-law in the act, Afghan authorities say.

Actually, says Martin Lau, an expert on Islamic law at the University of London who is studying the Afghan legal system, the Koran does not permit honor killings - contrary to assumptions here.

"Many - I would think most - Afghans believe it is Islamic law," he says.

Afghanistan's legal system is particularly hard on Afghan women. For them, running away from home is a crime. So is seeking a divorce. Women almost never accuse men of raping them, since the four-eyewitness standard applies. If the man is acquitted, legal experts say, the accuser can be charged with having engaged in illicit sex - and her accusations used as evidence against her.

Outside of Kabul and other cities, there is barely any law at all. There are no police in most rural areas - just gunmen and pliant mullahs enforcing the decrees of warlords. In several provinces, including Ghazni southwest of Kabul, governors have refused to recognize judges appointed by the interim government, court officials say.

Part of the problem is sheer confusion. Since 1964, the nation has suffered a succession of coups, assassinations and civil wars, and seen five new constitutions. Each new government has issued its own edicts. Many are outdated.

After the 1990 drug law was adopted, United Nations officials say, Afghanistan underwent severe inflation. Today, the fine for cultivating poppies is just $1.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.