WASHINGTON, May 27, 2010 — Servicemembers in Afghanistan are working with the country’s interior and defense ministries to provide legal advice and development in the country.
“We’re a little bit different than most of your standard military legal offices,” said Army Col. Rick Rousseau, who serves in Afghanistan with the NATO training mission’s staff judge advocate’s office, during a “DoD Live” bloggers roundtable yesterday.
“While we do the normal functions of a legal office, I have three sections in my office that are quite different from any other,” Rousseau said.
The main role of the judge advocate’s office is to provide legal advice on all issues affecting the command’s commanders and staff. The office focuses on anticorruption efforts in Afghanistan and the legal development of the Afghan army and police.
Afghanistan’s national police fall under the interior ministry, and the judge advocate’s office stood up regional legal offices to provide legal services to the agency across the country, Rousseau said.
“That’s really just getting started,” he said. The staff also works with embassy officials on their rule-of-law strategy to make sure the role of police is outlined clearly in the justice continuum.
Referring to Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV’s “three-legged stool” of cops, courts and corrections, Rousseau explained his office’s role. Caldwell is in charge of the NATO training effort in Afghanistan.
“A component that we have of that is cops,” he said. “We want to make sure that that three-legged stool stands up right, and regarding the cops, that we provide the legal training for them.”
In the last nine months, Rousseau’s office and the national police have worked with the U.S. embassy and marshal’s service to beef up the judicial security in Afghanistan. Rousseau said the judicial security unit that initially had only 55 members is going to grow to more than 700, and then to 1,500 next year. The additional security, the colonel said, can ensure that that justice can be done and that judges are not feeling threatened.
Rousseau’s office also works with the defense ministry and the Afghan army, advising them on how to develop legal officers. In the past year, courthouses and detention facilities have been built for every Afghan army corps. The army also has a temporary legal school while a permanent facility is built on the grounds of the Afghan Defense University. This school will be used to train military judges, legal officers, criminal investigators and paralegals.
“The [Afghan army] legal system is doing pretty good,” Rousseau said. “They try about 300 to 400 [courts-martial] a year. “There’s hiccups we have to work through, but we’re feeling pretty good about the way that the legal system’s coming along.”
In addition to providing internal legal services, the judge advocate’s office has an important function in the development of the rule of law in Afghanistan, which Rousseau said is one of the biggest challenges.
“Not only do you have those different U.S. players, but we’ve got 30 or 40 different countries here with different agendas, [as well as nongovernmental organizations],” he said. “Coordinating all of that is a big challenge in the rule-of-law area.”
Rousseau also shared the story of 1st Lt. Lutfallah Abrihimi, a legal officer in the Afghan army who sacrificed his life when Taliban insurgents boarded a bus he was on to cut off the fingers of Afghans who had participated in the election. Abrihimi engaged the insurgents and killed three before they could terrorize or harm his fellow countrymen, and he lost his life when his service revolver ran out of ammunition.
“When I get asked that question about the political will and the mind of individuals to do the right thing, I think of the lieutenant, because here was a legal officer — someone that was literate, educated, didn’t have to be in the military,” Rousseau said. “He joined the military, and he chose to do the right thing. He stood up for what was right.” Rousseau said as a result of the efforts from Abrihimi, no one else was injured on that bus, and the insurgents departed.
“There’s a lot of people out there doing fantastic things, putting their lives at stake, moving out to different places in the country to further the rule of law,” Rousseau said. “We serve with these individual every day, as we say here in the command, “shohna ba shohna” — shoulder to shoulder.”
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