M. Asif Ehsan, left, and Sebghatullah Ebrahimi hope to bring the rule of law to their native Afghanistan
Both graduates of the Kabul University Faculty of Laws and Political Science, the two are enrolled in Washington and Lee's Master of Laws (LL.M.) program through a U.S. State Department initiative promoting justice reform in Afghanistan. They hope that exposure to U.S. laws and legal systems will further prepare them to help stabilize their country's legal sector when they return home.
Even setting aside cultural history, the effects of decades of war, and most recently internal strife from a controversial election, the barriers to justice reform are considerable. At every level, from judges to lawyers, the judicial sector in Afghanistan is critically short on trained personnel and corruption is commonplace. Most Afghan judges have no formal education in the country's legal codes, relying instead on religious training or customary law to deliver legal remedies.
Despite the challenges, Ehsan and Ebrahimi are committed to seeing the rule of law established in their home country. A stable and consistent justice system, they say, is the only way to realize the future they want for their homeland.
"People want jobs, a good life," Ehsan says, "But unless we have a strong justice sector, a strong rule of law, we cannot achieve the minimum level of development or welfare that we want to have in Afghanistan."
The Afghan students came to the U.S under the auspices of the Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan, a joint effort between the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and the American legal community. The goal of the partnership is to help the Afghan people establish a fair and transparent justice system that protects the rights of women, children, and minorities and that is equally accessible to all citizens.
Washington and Lee learned of the program from an alumnus, Kevin Rardin of the Law Class of 1984. Rardin is an assistant district attorney in Memphis but also an Army reservist who went on active duty in 2007-08 to serve as a Judge Advocate for U.S. forces and legal mentor to the judge advocates in the Afghan Army's 205th Corps. With Rardin's encouragement, W&L agreed to take two of the six Afghan law students accepted into the State Department program. Administrators from both the School of Law and W&L's Office of International Education plowed through red tape to get the students to Lexington just in time to start classes in August.
In fact, Ehsan and Ebrahimi didn't learn where they would be studying until just days before departing for the U.S. As non-native speakers, both are happy to have landed at a small, well-respected school, where the close student-faculty interaction provides support, but also encourages greater class participation.
Other of the University's qualities also resonated with the Afghan students, especially with Ehsan, who studied previously in the U.S., attending Macalester College in Minnesota on a Fulbright Scholarship.
"Your Honor System is unique," he says. "When it becomes part of your life, it is so critical."
Neither Ehsan nor Ebrahimi are completely certain where they will apply their enhanced knowledge and experience once they return to their homeland. Ehsan thinks he would like to work at the policy level, helping to stabilize the justice sector in order to encourage much-needed international investment.
Ebrahimi, who previously worked as a Gender and Justice Program Officer for the United Nations Development Fund for Women, knows that working for access to justice for marginalized groups will remain a strong focus of his career, in addition to taking part in the law reform process.
"Women and children have been the populations most affected by the war in my country," he says. "It will take time especially in rural areas to make the people aware of their rights, and to change certain traditions so that Afghan law is respected."