W.Va. Attorney Advises Afghans on Legal System

| The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - In 2010, Charleston attorney Barron Helgoe made a pretty momentous personal decision.

He would go to Afghanistan to work.

"I went for three reasons," Helgoe, now 53, recalled.

"One is I had relatives that were serving in Afghanistan and Iraq and I wanted to do my part."

He'd also read about violence done to Afghan women and seen pictures of women who'd had their noses sliced off or faces mutilated with acid, he said. "And I wanted to do something and see if I could be a part of stopping that."

He'd been doing the same thing for a long time, litigating cases for the Charleston firm of Victor Victor & Helgoe. "And I guess I was up for a little bit of adventure. And my children were older. It seemed like a good opportunity and time," he said.

Helgoe applied to take part in a U.S. State Department-funded effort called the Afghanistan Justice Sector Support Program, administered by the Washington, D.C.-based contractor Pacific Architects and Engineers. He was hired as a justice adviser and landed in Kabul in September 2010.

His term of service lasted until June 2014, and while there he traveled widely and gained increasing responsibilities.

"My job was to work in the field and help train local justice officials through our Afghan staff. My job was to provide support to the Afghan lawyers who were actually training the justice officials. And then to meet with local officials as well to develop relationships, so that they would support the program [and] to do some mentoring and training myself. It was a nationwide effort."

By the time he completed his time in the country, he was serving as deputy chief of the program, supervising 318 professionals and support staff, all devoted to bolstering the rule of law in the Afghan justice system. Traveling with military escorts, he visited more than 15 Afghan provinces, teaching and advising Afghan judges, prosecutors, police and defense attorneys.

"We had a staff of Afghan lawyers and translators. We ran a multiweek class teaching basic legal concepts - constitutional law, criminal procedure, criminal law. Importantly, we taught critical thinking, which was something the Afghan professionals needed.

"It's a leadership-based society, so in a society like that you needed to help young professionals know how to challenge authority," Helgoe said.

"They needed to learn how to think critically and logically, to make reasoned arguments so they could make strong arguments in court and protect their clients or advance their case. It was a foundation for them to understand critical thinking and the value that had for their profession, because they were not brought up to challenge authority."

Helgoe worked with Afghans longing for freedom, an end to endemic corruption and the ongoing Taliban insurgency. The Islamic fundamentalist Taliban ruled the country with a heavy hand from 1996 to 2001.

"People were very welcoming and very hungry for the law," Helgoe said.

"Interestingly enough, one of the things we did, we asked questions of our students to get profiles of them and information about them, and one of the things they did not like us asking was, 'What tribe are you from?' They would push back and say, 'We're trying to get past that. We're Afghans. We're not this tribe or that tribe. We're Afghans.'"

Much has changed since Taliban rule, Helgoe said.

"I think Americans would be surprised at how linked-in the youth are. There are 20 million cellphones in the country. They're hungry for an effective democracy. They have a democratic system, they have a right to redress, they have elections, they have an independent judiciary.

"There's been a large increase in the lifespan for Afghans. There's more health care. Millions of children are in school. There's a lot of positive changes, but there are a lot of challenges that remain. And corruption is the main one."

Traveling the country so much, he was well aware of the hazards to life and limb, but said he had to put that to the back of his mind. One day, the danger hit home after landing by helicopter in Khost.

"My team and I were standing 20 feet from the helicopter when a rocket exploded in the middle of the runway. Fortunately, we were just outside the blast radius. The shrapnel damaged the van that was picking us up," he said.

He kept a jagged piece of shrapnel from the blast as a reminder.

Two other West Virginia attorneys were working in Afghanistan while Helgoe was there. Christian Capece, the new Federal Public Defender for the Southern District of West Virginia, was deployed with the military, and Mac Warner of Morgantown, worked with the Justice Sector Support Program.

What an American attorney found halfway across the world was a surprisingly strong legal structure, but one that needed encouragement and support.

"Our job was to educate about the Afghan constitution and the Afghan laws. The Afghanistan people are blessed to have a very good constitution and very strong laws. They certainly could be improved, but I think Westerners would be surprised at how enlightened their criminal laws are. They promote not detaining juveniles unless it's absolutely necessary, treatment for drug addicts.

"It wasn't the laws so much that were the challenge. It was the implementation of those laws and educating the line police, the detectives, the judges who were out in the district, about those laws."

For example, one of the cultural challenges is that women would leave their home to escape domestic problems or they simply wanted to leave, he said. "And they would be charged with running away. It was a cultural concept that women weren't supposed to leave the home without permission. That's not the law.

"And the Supreme Court issued a directive saying, you know, running away is not a crime. Police would arrest women for running away, and it wasn't illegal. So part of the process was helping our Afghan lawyers teach effectively the Afghan justice officials that these are the laws that exist, they protect women, they need to be enforced."

Sometimes administering the law was challenged by something as basic as getting supplies to far-flung districts.

"The biggest challenge initially is that they didn't have law books. We actually printed the law books and shipped them out and brought them to the courts, brought them to the police. They didn't have supplies. Go and report a crime to the police, and the police didn't have a pen to write the report down. You're talking a very challenging environment.

"But we were able to provide material support, mentoring and training, so that those officials could develop their local offices and develop their skills to provide the services the people needed."

Helgoe said he is hopeful about the country and what the justice program left behind.

"I'm hopeful that the new administration there, which has been very vocal about challenging corruption, will move forward with that and root out some of the problems that continue to plague the system.

"I think that what we've left behind or what I've left behind are a lot of very good friends, who care deeply about their country and who respect the law, excellent lawyers who care about their families and took tremendous risks to work with us."

For a PDF of the full article, please click here.