The Impossible Job of Afghanistan's Attorney General

Saturday, 11 March 2017 03:31 Written by  May Jeong Read 134 times

Last April, Mohammad Farid Hamidi, Afghanistan’s 49-year-old attorney general, made an unprecedented pledge: From eight in the morning until eight in the evening each Monday, he would meet with anyone seeking legal counsel. On some days, this meant seeing as many as 200 petitioners. Hamidi, who came into power in April 2016, called the practice morajein-e roz, or the day of the petitioners.

 

On a brisk Monday morning last November, scores of Afghans meandered outside the attorney general’s office in downtown Kabul, hoping for an audience with Hamidi. Some dressed in western-style suits befitting the urban upper middle class, others in more traditional garb. A handful of the men who showed up worked down the street from the building, while others had traveled for days. Others still had packed snacks or lugged caches of paperwork that had accumulated over the course of their legal battles with venal local politicians, unjust bosses, or bullying neighbors.

The building had been recently renovated to symbolically mark the transition from the previous attorney general, whose tenure had been marred by accusations of corruption. Balustrades were still wet with paint, and workmen were pushing wheelbarrows carrying computers, the building’s first ever.

Inside, Hamidi’s office, packed with visitors, was stifling. His cluttered, expansive desk and the dark mahogany wainscoting gave the room the asphyxiating feel of a winter cabin. Sitting behind the desk, he listened closely, his handsome, wide-open face and striking eyebrows focused on the petitioners. (There were no tea breaks, as Mondays were strictly for business.) A young man asked for his help in settling a family dispute. A woman sought guidance on a sexual harassment suit. A well-kept older woman protested that she had been fired from her job as a low-level civil servant after exposing the office’s internal corruption. A soft-spoken younger prosecutor asked to be transferred to Kabul; her conservative colleagues in the rural east were not amenable to her working there, she said.

Hamidi asked questions and took occasional notes. Many of his visitors betrayed their ignorance of the law, or of the limits of his power. He knew that the uneducated and the poor often faced the steepest disadvantages in the justice system, and were often unable to serve as their own best advocates.

Around mid-morning, a day laborer named Abdul Rahim walked in to see Hamidi, carrying with him a tattered folder crammed with paperwork. He had arrived in Kabul after traveling in a shared taxi for hours from Kapisa, a province some 65 miles away. He’d heard about Hamidi on television, and liked what the big man had to say about curbing the culture of impunity that allowed corruption to fester among the country's elites.

Rahim, who was “approximately 60,” hoped Hamidi could help settle a land dispute that predated even the Taliban regime. The land in question, purchased in 1984, had been taken unlawfully by a powerful, distant cousin, he said. It was now worth $20,000, and he wanted it back. He had followed the official channels, bringing the case before the local court, the appeals court, then the supreme court, all to no avail.

After listening to Rahim, Hamidi handed him a letter that would allow him to restart legal proceedings. “The saranwal, he’s a good guy,” Rahim said, using the Pashtu word for prosecutor. “All the people of Afghanistan would agree with me.”

The hope was that this one-to-one outreach would help Hamidi gain the trust of ordinary Afghans, those exploited by an elite class that has gotten fat off of the aid money that has flooded the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that ousted the Taliban. But in a country plagued by dysfunctional institutions, the reform approach has its limits. Meanwhile, there is a rising concern that making an enemy of Afghanistan’s most powerful—those who have profited off the war economy—may doom him just as he’s getting started.

Hamidi is a police-academy graduate whose work as a human rights commissioner won him a strong recommendation from President Ashraf Ghani, who, in one of his first official acts, nominated him to lead the attorney general’s office. The parliament confirmed him, by a vote of 200-19. From the beginning, he was feted as a star of Ghani’s reform agenda. Nader Nadery, a senior advisor to the president, told me there were worries over whether he could meet the impossibly high expectations. Then, “when he started bringing the first set of reforms, the president became more and more confident. [Hamidi] would pass by and the president would point to him and tell me, ‘I am proud of him,’” Nadery said.