Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Rough Justice in Helmand

The Taleban’s Sharia courts are meting out swift, sometimes brutal punishment, but many residents say they prefer it that way.
By Aziz Ahmad
It was a banal, everyday quarrel over watering rights. In drought-stricken Helmand, farmers often come to blows over whose turn it is to use the water from irrigation canals. But Ghani and Mohammad Lal, two neighbours in a small village in Garmseer district, took things too far.

Their dispute escalated to a point where one day, as Ghani went out to water his land, Mohammad Lal took his gun and shot him dead. Then he went home.

Within minutes, Taleban security services had picked up Mohammad Lal and taken him to their base in Miaan Kushti.

Garmseer, a district of Helmand some 30 kilometres from the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, is almost entirely under the control of the Taleban, who form the de facto local administration.

Mohammad Lal was brought before a Taleban judge and found guilty, and within three days Ghani’s family was informed that they could come for the execution.

According to Sharia, the body of Islamic law, in a murder case the victim’s family has the right to vengeance by carrying out a death sentence themselves. Called “qisas”, it corresponds to the principle of “an eye for an eye”.

Ghani’s brother was given a gun, and he shot Mohammad Lal without hesitation.

“I am very happy with the result,” said the brother, who did not want to give his name. “If the government had been in charge, there would have been a lot of paperwork and who knows how it would have ended?

“But this is good. I was given a gun and I shot my brother’s killer. The government wouldn’t let us do that. The Taleban decide cases very quickly, without wasting time. And they give people the right to carry out the punishment.”

More and more, people in Helmand are seeking justice through the Sharia courts which the Taleban have set up in all the areas under their control.

The Afghan government’s hold on the majority of Helmand’s 14 districts is weak, with some areas such as Musa Qala, Washir and Garmseer almost totally ceded to the Taleban.

Even where the state is present, many people see its judicial system as hopelessly corrupt and inefficient. Increasingly, they are coming to prefer the Taleban’s swift administration of a ruthless form of justice.

Gul Agha, who works as a driver in Kajaki in the north of the province, professed himself happy with the Taleban courts.

“The government cannot resolve our cases,” he said. “They do not punish criminals according to Islamic law. If they arrest a thief, they don’t cut off his hand. And some of the criminals they arrest are set free to walk the streets.”

A local Taleban commander, Mullah Abdullah Akhund, insists his men act in full accordance with Islamic law, if not with Afghanistan’s written constitution.

“We do not accept the constitution,” he said firmly. “Our constitution is the Koran. We punish a murderer or adulterer according to Sharia, and this is done by the Ulema [Islamic scholars] in each district,” he said.

The mullah railed against the laxity of Afghanistan’s civil law.

“There is nothing in the constitution about hair or beards, but shaving is prohibited by our law,” he said. “And the constitution says that those who commit adultery should be imprisoned. But they should be killed.”

A resident of Musa Qala, Abdul Manaaf, told IWPR that people there were very happy with the Taleban court system.

“The Taleban issue rulings in accordance with Sharia, and they solve people’s problems without taking bribes or putting other obstacles in people’s way,” he said in a telephone interview

Bashir Ahmad, a resident of Garmseer, agreed that the process was speedy.

“The decisions taken by the Taleban make people happy, because the process does not take long. If we take our cases to the government courts, it can take months and months. They also ask for bribes. But the Taleban don’t waste time,” he said.

In areas under their control, the Taleban have set up an entire system, with district governors, police, courts and judges.

According to Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, a Taleban spokesman, each district court has four judges.

“They are wise and educated people,” he said. “They issue independent rulings, and locals who have problems can come to them for help. They rule on cases such as murder, adultery, personal injury and so on.

However, Mullah Ahmad, the head of the Ulema council for Helmand province, rejects the Taleban’s claim to be administering Sharia justice properly.

“The Taleban cannot decide a case properly. This is just propaganda,” he fumed.

He dismissed the charge that the government courts were too slow. “It takes time to study a case,” he insisted.

Mullah Ahmad did acknowledge that there was corruption within the state system, and noted that relationship between his clerical council and the government was at times strained.

“I am part of the government, but it does not pay attention to us, in part because there is bribery in the government courts,” he said.

Mullah Ibrahim Akhund, a resident of Washir district, expressed mixed feelings about having a Taleban administration in charge.

“Taleban rule is good to an extent,” he admitted. “There are no thieves, and the courts don’t take bribes. That’s very good.”

But he also said, “We are not happy with the Taleban because if the government comes back, we will be in trouble.”

In addition, he said, the Taleban’s presence heightened the risk of being drawn into the ongoing conflict. “It is because the Taleban are here that foreigners are killing Afghan civilians,” he said.

Another resident of Washir, who did not want to be named, had a major grievance against the Taleban courts.

“I fell in love with my brother-in-law’s sister,” he explained. “One day I was at her house to see her, and her brothers caught me. They beat me severely, then they raped me.”

The speaker, a 26-year-old man, said that he brought his case to the Taleban.

“The Taleban said they needed eyewitnesses. Where was I supposed to get them?” he said. “In the end we went to the government. But still nothing has happened. We may never be able to resolve this case.”

Aziz Ahmad Tassal is an IWPR staff reporter in Helmand.

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