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U.S. Law Schools Open Doors to Afghan Lawyers

By Howard Cincotta
Special Correspondent

Washington - Three Afghan lawyers studying for advanced law degrees in the United States may be the vanguard of a continuing stream of legal professionals from Afghanistan who will have educational opportunities at several of the United States' highly ranked law schools.

The three students - two at Washington and Lee University Law School in Virginia and one at Harvard Law School in Massachusetts - are studying under the auspices of the Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan, launched in 2007 by the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) and a number of U.S. universities and law firms.

"These efforts ensure that Afghans will have the knowledge and skills to develop and sustain the rule of law," said INL Assistant Secretary David Johnson, the public co-chairman of the partnership.

Robert O'Brien, a partner in the Arent Fox law firm and the private-sector co-chairman, said, "It's really gratifying to see this legal training mission move forward." The program "is an opportunity for long-term training of the next generation of Afghan lawyers and legal educators."

Along with Harvard and Washington and Lee, O'Brien said the partnership has commitments from a number of law schools to offer tuition-free law degree programs. They include George Washington University and American University, both located in Washington; Stanford University, Whittier College of Law, and the University of California at Berkeley in California; the University of Utah; and Ohio Northern University.

Law degree programs at these institutions normally would cost a student $40,000 or more a year, O'Brien said.

At Harvard Law School, Sayed Mohammad Saeeq Shajjan, who worked at the National Legal Training Center in Afghanistan, is taking classes in public sector, corporate, and development law to earn a master of laws degree.

The number of international students at Harvard, from more than 50 countries, has eased Shajjan's adjustment. "Afghanistan is a hot topic everywhere," he said. "There will be news about Afghanistan and tomorrow my classmates will discuss it with me. I love it."

Next semester, Shajjan plans to sign up for classes in international human rights law and gender justice. Throughout the year, he will be writing a long research paper on human rights in Afghanistan. "I have to do a lot of reading," he said. "Nothing else but reading, reading and reading."

Shajjan isn't sure where he will work when he returns home. "I will have to wait and see where I can be useful and where I can make a difference."

At Washington and Lee University, Asif Ehsan and Sebghatullah Ebrahami, both graduates of Kabul University's School of Law, are equally committed to helping strengthen the rule of law at home.

Ebrahami has found Washington and Lee both "exciting and intimidating." His biggest adjustment in the classroom, he said, is the Socratic method of teaching - based on critical examination through questions and answers. Another difference is the emphasis on case law - examining specific judicial decisions - rather than discussions of abstract legal principles.

Ehsan is taking a constitutional law class taught by Rod Smolla, dean of the law school. Smolla recalled when the class was exploring U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding prisoners at the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

"I gave Asif the floor to make a relatively long presentation of about 20 minutes on his perspective on these issues," Smolla said. "You could have heard a pin drop in the classroom as he spoke."

Ehsan, who escaped to Pakistan with his family during Taliban rule, sees the law school as challenging the students academically, which prepares them "to assume their duties in challenging environments."

"I am hoping to be able to join the policy level within the justice sector so I can start bringing changes to the system itself, rather than working as an individual lawyer," he said.

The three students are not the first sponsored by the partnership. In 2008, Afghan Judge Abdul Saboor Hashimi earned a master of laws degree at Whittier Law School in California.

Hashimi was helped by a federal district court judge in California in preparing a benchbook for judges, which provides practical rules and procedures for running a courtroom and managing cases.

"Judge Hashimi left not only with a master's degree but Afghanistan's first benchbook," O'Brien said.

The partnership has held several hands-on workshops in the United States. One was a 21-day program for 16 Afghan prosecutors at the University of Utah; the second a two-week workshop in California for 14 prominent Afghan women judges and attorneys. A special program for Afghan defense attorneys is planned for Harvard University in early 2010.

The Afghan women legal professionals who attended the workshop also met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Washington.

"Your American friends greatly admire your bravery and country," Clinton told them. "It is your work in the tough environment of Afghanistan for women lawyers that will bring real reform and the rule of law to the Afghan people."

The Partnership for Justice Reform is by no means the only or largest such initiative in the country. The Afghanistan Rule of Law Project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, has trained 800 judges since 2004. (See "Afghanistan's Judiciary Rebuilding Under New Supreme Court: ).

That project is conducting a sweeping legal reform effort that encompasses independent judiciary, legal education and outreach, and universal access to justice, with special emphasis on the rights of women.

This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:


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