Afghans flock to Judge Dread and his butcher boys

The Sunday Times

The old man woke in the middle of the night to the sound of someone rifling through drawers in his living room. He reached for a shotgun stashed beneath his bed and crept into the hallway.

The robber, who was after his gold, heard him coming. He shot the old man twice in the chest at point blank range, killing him instantly, and fled into the night.

Alerted by the screams of the women in the house, a Taliban foot soldier mobilised patrols of the area. Two hours later, Taliban fighters caught Mohammad Basir, 32, as he tried to steal a motorbike to escape. They dragged him back to the dead man’s house, where he confessed to the murder.

Hauled before Bayatullah Qasim, a Taliban judge in the Ghazni province of eastern Afghanistan, he was sentenced to hang.

A length of coarse rope was tied around Basir’s neck and he was winched into the air by a small crane mounted on the back of a Toyota pick-up truck. Only two days had passed since his crime.

“It’s this type of fast justice that makes people want to come to us if they have a problem,” said Qasim, the 41-year-old judge.

In an unprecedented interview with The Sunday Times, the judge spoke at length last week about Taliban justice, which is seen by a growing number of Afghans as more effective than a badly corrupted official system.

The punishments available to Qasim include beheading, stoning and chopping off hands. He employs two “butchers” to hack off robbers’ limbs with axes and saw off spies’ heads with knives.

“The butchers know exactly what punishment fits what crime,” he said. “All I have to do is tell them what the crime is and they know what and how much to cut off.”

Qasim made me remove the Sim card from my mobile phone for fear it might be bugged. He had every reason to be nervous: American forces arrested two Taliban judges in a nearby district earlier this month and two days before I met him, they appeared to have discovered his hideout.

He was on his motorbike, carrying court documents stamped with the official Taliban seal, when the Americans approached the village where he was staying.

He hid his bike and papers in a shop, stuffed popcorn from a street vendor into the front apron of his shalwar kameez and walked straight past the convoy, pretending to be a lunatic.

“My heart was racing but I walked as if I was a crazy man. They saw me stuffing popcorn into my mouth and staggering around the place and they thought I was mental, so they let me go on,” Qasim said.

He estimates that his butchers have severed 40 arms and hands in the 18 months since he became a district judge.

They use a round block of wood about waist high as a chopping board. Axes of various sizes are wielded to hack off limbs, depending on the severity of the crime.

Any theft of goods worth more than $200 justifies the loss of a hand under the Taliban’s interpretation of sharia, the sacred law of Islam.

The butchers stain the place where the axe will fall with a marker pen. A doctor attends to ensure that the prisoner does not bleed to death. The severed hand is thrown to dogs or into a stream.

“Once the criminal has had his hand chopped off, then he’s forgiven. He can go to hospital afterwards,” Qasim said.

Rapists receive up to 120 lashes with a leather whip filled with 125 coins, a punishment that often results in death, according to Qasim. A widow who has sex with a man receives 60 lashes, as does he. An adulteress is stoned to death as long as there are two witnesses to prove the crime.

Captured Afghan soldiers or policemen are usually hanged, while murderers and spies are more likely to be shot or beheaded. Murder victims’ families are often allowed to choose the manner of death.

“But these cases are rare in Taliban areas,” Qasim said. “People are afraid of our courts, so there’s not so much crime there. Most of the murders and kidnappings happen in government-controlled areas.”

The high regard in which some Afghans hold Taliban justice is explained partly by the fact that it is free. The Taliban also monitor their own operations, investigating any cases of alleged abuse.

Small delegations of high-ranking mullahs from a judicial commission are sent to districts about twice a month to check on the integrity of the Taliban working there. The delegations enter mosques to speak to local people after evening prayer.

The commission investigates any claims before deciding whether to disarm, imprison or put to death an accused soldier, commander or judge.

A commander in Qasim’s district was recently lashed and imprisoned for beating locals who refused to heat their mosque because they did not want any Taliban to spend the night there.

Another commander in neighbouring Paktia province was caught with a tracking beacon that he used to pinpoint the location of Taliban cells for American attack helicopters and warplanes. He had killed seven Taliban commanders in this way, earning up to $10,000 a time from his American handlers, before he was sentenced to death.

His head was sawn off with a butcher’s knife. His body was then dumped in the middle of a bazaar with the head placed on top of his chest. A note pinned to it read: “This is what happens to American spies.”

Before taking up his post in Afghanistan, Qasim had been schooled in the Taliban’s reading of sharia at a madrasah in the Pakistani city of Miram Shah.

He had recently graduated as a mullah and was studying to become a mawlawi — an Islamic scholar — when the insurgents enlisted him to their cause in 2009.

“The Taliban told me that the time was right for me to serve my nation,” he said, stroking his wispy black beard.

“I was reluctant at first to leave my studies but after they spoke to me, it quickly became clear that this was my calling.

“Afghanistan is a nation founded on warlordism and corruption. The Taliban are not corrupt. They don’t fight for money.”

In June that year, Qasim travelled across the border into Afghanistan with a handful of foot soldiers to take up his new post in the Andar district of Ghazni, a hotbed of insurgent activity.

Within a week he had solved his first case — a common land dispute between two neighbours. Such disputes make up a substantial proportion of the cases over which he presides. Often they threaten to trigger tit-for-tat blood feuds.

Two weeks ago, Qasim ruled on the case of Naqibullah Noori, who shot and killed two men with an assault rifle after his cousins stormed his land with 15 accomplices and beat him and his brother with shovels. The cousins said the land was theirs.

Noori spent a month in jail before tribal elders secured his release by vouching for him. However, after four years of weekly trips to a local government judge and $5,000 in bribes, his case had still not been heard.

“Friends of mine told me I should go to the Taliban court,” said the 32-year-old Noori. “In four years, the government hadn’t even bothered to send a delegation to look into our case. They never once asked for the deeds to the land.”

Within two weeks, the Taliban judge had made a decision. Noori was ordered to pay $37,000 compensation to his cousins. The land was divided between the two families and they were warned that if the dispute arose again, the Taliban would beat them.

“I was incredibly happy with the decision,” Noori said. “The Taliban’s justice system is far more efficient. They don’t care about money and they decide quickly and they always look at the truth. It is a fair system.”

Noori said that many people in his village had begun to feed the Taliban fighters who pass through their area out of gratitude to them for solving disputes.

The international community has spent millions of dollars on a drive to overhaul Afghanistan’s archaic justice system, root out corruption and increase trust in the government. But so far there are few signs of progress.

“Afghanistan’s justice system is in a catastrophic state of disrepair,” said a report released in November by the International Crisis Group. “Lack of justice has destabilised the country and judicial institutions have withered to near nonexistence.”

It added: “Many courts are inoperable and those that do function are understaffed. Insecurity, lack of proper training and low salaries have driven many judges and prosecutors from their jobs. Those who remain are highly susceptible to corruption.”

Corruption infects all levels of the official system, from lowly district judges, who take bribes averaging $1,000 a go, to members of President Hamid Karzai’s inner circle.

In the most high-profile recent case, Karzai intervened to have a senior aide released from prison and the charges against him dropped after he was arrested for fraud by the Major Crimes Task Force, a US-backed investigations unit mentored by the FBI.

Karzai’s reluctance to punish corrupt relatives and cronies is one of the Taliban’s most potent recruiting tools. Last week Habibullah Ghalib, the justice minister, admitted that many Afghans prefer the Taliban’s brand of summary justice.

The United Nations estimated last year that Afghans had paid a total of $2.49 billion in bribes in 2009, equivalent to roughly a fifth of Afghanistan’s GDP. The largest bribes were paid to judges and prosecutors, the UN found.

Qasim well understands the appeal of his Taliban court in Andar district. He knows that his court’s quickly dispensed justice can be used as propaganda for rallying Afghans to the Taliban’s cause.

“We are popular among the people because in the government everything is about money,” he said. “If you have money, you get to choose who is right and who is wrong. You are the law.

“We have a popular joke in the Taliban. An elder comes to Karzai and asks him to dismiss all the judges, provincial officials, police and prosecutors because they’re all taking bribes. Karzai replies, ‘But how much will you pay me to dismiss all of them?’”

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