Editor's Note: This post was originally published by Morrison Foerster.
Parsing through the law on public corruption in the Afghan Penal Code while Afghan public defenders engage me in a legal discussion in a mixture of Dari and halting English is not something I ever imagined I would be doing in the course of my professional career. But there I was in Delhi, with Dan Levison, MoFo partner and head of litigation in our Singapore office, providing expert anti-corruption training to Afghan public defenders that will better equip them to afford effective defense to vulnerable, indigent clients facing criminal prosecution. These Afghan lawyers, who no doubt were familiar with personal struggle in their conflict-ridden home country, were keen learners, eager to make a difference in the lives of their fellow Afghans in need.
The International Legal Foundation
Dan and I were in Delhi, India, working pro bono with The International Legal Foundation (ILF). The ILF was founded to provide access to justice to those who cannot afford a lawyer, in some of the world’s most challenging post conflict jurisdictions. Recognizing that, often, the less privileged of these populations are disproportionately arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated, the ILF has established itself in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Nepal, Tunisia, and the West Bank to help provide quality criminal-defense services to those in need. The organization works closely with local governments in each of these jurisdictions, and trains and empowers lawyers to provide effective legal services to indigent clients. MoFo’s partnership with the ILF in Afghanistan was initiated by MoFo New York partners Carrie Cohen and Amanda Aikman, former U.S. prosecutors who wanted to contribute to the ILF’s important mission of providing quality criminal-defense in diverse legal systems.
The ILF in Afghanistan
The ILF commenced its program in Afghanistan in 2003, as the country began to emerge from decades of conflict. To date, the ILF remains the largest provider of legal aid services to Afghans facing criminal prosecution, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, age, or political affiliation.
As the country made progress in justice reform, the Afghan government made provision for a judiciary, special tribunals, and prosecutors, but there was unfortunately no provision for legal aid. The ILF steps into this gap and trains local lawyers to provide quality legal services to needy clients accused of crimes.
In June 2016, Afghanistan’s President Ghani signed an executive decree establishing the Anti-Corruption Justice Center (ACJC)—a specialized tribunal with jurisdiction over major corruption cases in any Afghan province. Afghanistan was on the path to combating corruption. In September 2018, a dedicated anti-corruption law was enacted that codified the legal basis of the ACJC, defining its duties, authority, and jurisdiction. The ILF began seeing an increasing number of indigent clients accused of various corruption offenses before the ACJC—often as scapegoats for high-level, well-resourced individuals. With a majority of the ILF’s public defenders trained in defending so-called “blue collar offenses,” there was a need for specialized training in providing effective defense for clients accused of corruption and other related financial crimes. Seeing the need, Carrie and Amanda, with their deep experience prosecuting high-profile corruption cases, began working with the ILF to develop a detailed written guide to provide the Afghan public defenders with strategic and practical guidance when representing clients with cases pending before the ACJC. When the ILF asked if MoFo would be willing to conduct training for their lawyers in Delhi, Dan and I took up the cause to join the work Carrie and Amanda started on this important project.
The Training in Delhi
Dan and I arrived in India bringing to the training sessions two different but complementary skill sets—Dan with over 20 years of experience in anti-corruption and white collar defense work in the region, and I with my background as a former prosecutor who had specialized in white collar offenses. Truth be told, I was uncertain of how I would be received by the Afghan lawyers—with the seeming prevalence of unjust convictions in their home country, a former prosecutor may not be the most welcomed person.
I need not have worried. It wasn’t long before the Afghan lawyers were engaging me in vigorous discussion as Dan and I conducted the training sessions. They were eager to hear perspectives from “the other side,” and equally shared their experiences and challenges defending clients.
The training sessions were focused on building a foundational legal understanding of the elements of the corruption offenses in the Afghan Penal Code and the relevant types of evidence, before turning to developing practical skills that are essential to assessing, investigating, and developing the client’s case. The sessions delved into the skills involved in reviewing the prosecution’s charges, preparing for and conducting interviews with clients and witnesses, developing an investigative plan, and building a defense strategy. Time never seemed to be enough—sessions that were scheduled for three hours each soon stretched into six. The participants were eager to share their personal experiences with us and, to me, this was crucial. Hearing from them, we were made aware of the specific challenges they were facing in their home jurisdiction; challenges we would otherwise never have known of as outsiders. This process of discussion, rather than lecturing, I believe enabled us to speak more directly to the Afghans’ particular concerns; it facilitated better understanding between us, allowing us to be more helpful to them.
Three things have remained with me from the experience with our Afghan colleagues in Delhi. First, I was moved by their commitment to a cause—to facilitating access to justice—when they themselves would have had to face significant personal struggles as Afghanistan pulled itself out of conflict and oppression. It was obvious that they took immense pride in their roles as advocates for the less privileged, and that they were eager to deepen and broaden their skill sets in order to better serve others. Second, as a woman, I was encouraged to see Afghan women in each training session. They were in the minority, but they were there. Despite the many obstacles women in Afghanistan have faced, there they were, women rising up despite their circumstances, ready to make a difference in the lives of others. Third, I was encouraged to find that, even though I had moved from public service to private practice, pro bono projects such as these mean that I am still able to impact the lives of individuals in need in a meaningful way.
The experience with the Afghan public defenders in India was not one I had ever imagined, but it is certainly one I will never forget.