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Trials By Fire
With a little help from the UW, future Afghan lawyers and judges survive a suicide attack, then take on Washington, D.C.

Early Friday morning, Feb. 26th, Spozhmai Salma Stanakzai woke in time to shower and make morning prayers. Instead, she and her roommate spent the morning huddled in a corner, praying for their lives. At 6:30, a car bomb exploded outside the Hamid Guest House across the street, tearing the facade of the Safi. “It was morning prayer time,” says the 20-year-old Stanakzai. “I couldn’t hear anything but I thought maybe it was an earthquake. Then, I was smoke and glass everywhere.” Shattered mirrors and glass sprayed the room, slicing Stanakzai’s feet when she tried to walk. “We just turned off the lights and sat in a corner, waiting for our turn to die.”

Hamid Guest House

A post-blast view from Stanakzai’s hotel room.

It was mid-August 2009 when John Eddy, ’69, UW professor of law and manager of the UW’s Afghan Legal Educators Project, was approached by the State Department with a request: Help fill the void in U.S. support of legal education in Afghanistan. More specifically, create an Afghan team for the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition—the world’s largest moot court competition.

Scarcity of libraries and books make lecture-based learning just about the only option in Afghanistan, and experiential learning is an education method sorely lacking in the poverty-stricken, war-torn country. The State Department wanted to build goodwill in Afghanistan and offer a program that would provide skill training—such as clerking—or a moot court competition type of experience that would allow students to practice advocacy skills such as lawyering.

Sending a team to the Jessup Competition in Washington, D.C., could do just that. Every year students from more than 500 law schools and 80 countries travel to D.C. for the 51-year-old competition, which is a simulation of a fictional dispute between countries before the International Court of Justice, the judicial organ of the United Nations.

Putting together an Afghan contingent to compete in the Jessup Competition had been on the radar for the United States Agency for International Development but had been nixed when a USAID contract ended earlier that summer. The State Department wanted the UW to pick it up.

Why call on the UW? Because, having run programs in Afghanistan for years, the UW has extensive knowledge and expertise about Afghan legal education. Since 2005 the UW has had a program in place designed to help train Afghan law professors and professionals—the Afghan Legal Educators Program. But that program focuses on professionals and, in part, brings participants to the U.S. to study. An in-country program that prepares teams for a moot court competition with the cachet of the Jessup would support and promote legal education in Afghanistan.

Before the UW was even officially awarded the grant for the in-country legal education program, Eddy got to work. The timing was tight. The compromis—or statement of the case—would come out at the end of September and Eddy still had to find someone willing to run the program, for starters.

That person turned out to be Seattle-based alum Mark Hough, ’71, who had experience working with USAID in Afghanistan. Eddy wanted to know if Hough had any young lawyers who might be interested in spending some time in Afghanistan. “How about an old lawyer?” Hough asked.

Their challenge was daunting, with less than a month to establish and launch a program, find teams and coaches, all while navigating cultural, physical and political landscapes.

And yet, when the program was launched an astounding 100 students tried out. And more than 30 participated in one way or another. Only a handful of universities in Afghanistan have law programs, all of which function at the undergraduate level, and each of which has two faculty: Shariah—Islamic law, based on the Quran—and Political Science and Law. Typically, students choose one of two paths: studying either with Shariah or political science and law faculty. Shariah students are primarily immersed in understanding how Islamic law evolved, where the roots of laws come from, and how the law should be applied. Students in the political science and law tract typically study how Afghanistan’s civil law—which is largely based on Egyptian code, itself based on French legal code—was derived and codified. Historically, most who are on the path to becoming a judge study Shariah. Those interested in diplomatic or civil service positions study political science and law.

In the end, Hough chose teams from three universities to compete against each other in a national, in-country competition—the first ever in Afghanistan. The first-place team would represent Afghanistan in the international competition in Washington, D.C., in March. For budgetary reasons, they focused on schools close enough in proximity to Kabul that the program could be staffed from the capital. Because they weren’t able to place people in Kandahar or Kapisa province, universities in those areas had to be excluded. In the end, they fielded teams from Kabul University, Jalalabad’s Nangarhar University and Al-Biruni University, each within commutable, road-transit distance from Kabul.

Hough and team also took another radical step and integrated the teams with students of the Shariah law faculty and the political science and law faculty. While students in both arenas are studying the law, for the most part the two academies don’t intermingle, until they meet in the real world. Both would get to argue cases and get the kind of practical, hands-on legal experience law students in the U.S. get.

After the teams are chosen to compete in the Jessup, they receive the compromis and begin work. In the case of Afghanistan, coaches also had to give the students broad-brush outlines of international law and research tools, such as teaching them what are authoritative sources of international law for an internal controversy and where to find those sources.

“Teams from some countries would come in with that already under their belt, and they could just focus on the problem,” Eddy says. Not true for the Afghans, who study law at the undergraduate level.

Once up to speed, the students moved into fundamental lawyering and learning the facts of the case. The 2010 case centered around the right to self-determination and the lawfulness of measures taken to protect the economic resources of a country—in this case the imaginary “Windscale Islands,” an archipelago in the Southern Hemisphere lying in the “Eden Ocean,” approximately 500 miles due west of the fictional Republic of Aspatria. The case had real similarities to the Falkland Islands controversy, including an argument about new oil reserves found off the Windscale Islands.

Students had to figure out the legal theories beneficial to both sides of the case, then research those theories from both offensive and defensive stances.

“Aside from very nice ‘international law training,’ it’s also very good basic lawyer training,” Eddy says. This type of training is not provided anywhere else in Afghanistan legal education.

From October through mid-February, the teams trained in earnest for the in-country competition, set to begin on Saturday, Feb. 27. Some students even stayed in Kabul hotels to prepare. That was no small task for the women on the team, says Spozhmai Salma Stanakzai, a Shariah student from Kabul University and one of two women from her school to compete. Originally, four women had been selected, but two could not participate due to many late-night study sessions and required hotel stays.

“Afghan girls, it’s not easy for them to leave their houses and go stay in hotels,” says Stanakzai. She, however, had the support of her parents. So much so that in the days leading up to the competition her father brought dinner to the team.

During that time, Stanakzai and a teammate, along with Hough and Rachel Olander, the program’s local administrator, were staying at the competition venue, the Safi Landmark Hotel. The rest of the teams were holed up in the Park Residence Guest House down the street, preparing their cases late into the night.

Early Friday morning, Feb. 26th, Stanakzai woke in time to shower and make morning prayers. Instead, she and her roommate spent the morning huddled in a corner, praying for their lives. At 6:30, a car bomb exploded outside the Hamid Guest House across the street, tearing the facade of the Safi.

“It was morning prayer time,” says the 20-year-old Stanakzai. “I couldn’t hear anything, but I thought maybe it was an earthquake. Then, I saw smoke and glass everywhere.” Shattered mirrors and glass sprayed the room, slicing into Stanakzai’s feet when she tried to walk.

“We just turned off the lights and sat in a corner, waiting for our turn to die,” she said.

Until noon the women could hear the voices of the suicide bombers threatening to blow themselves up. In a room nearby, Mark Hough sat listening to the shooting.

But things were worse for the teams at the Park Residence. Minutes after the blast, two heavily armed Taliban attackers wearing suicide-bomb vests stormed the Park Residence. One suicide bomber blew himself up in front of students. In another room, a police sniper shot the other bomber, while students hid under a bed.

In all, at least 17 people, including three Afghan police officers, were killed. Fortunately, the police were able to escort the students out of the guesthouses and home to safety.

And that, Hough imagined, was the end of the Jessup Competition for the Afghan team. Soon though, his phone began ringing. The students were calling, asking, “When do we start practicing again?”

Though the original venue for the competition was in tatters, the national competition went forward a week after the attacks, with some help from the U.S. embassy. The team from Al-Biruni won, and Hough and Olander went about securing visas for the team members. They also procured visas for three oralists, including Stanakzai, from Kabul University.

In March, the Afghans arrived to a warm welcome in D.C. There were standing ovations, and several teams from around the world made banners welcoming the contingent. And while they didn’t make it to the final rounds, both the Kabul students and the Al-Biruni team won the Spirit of the Jessup Award, an award recognizing the team that best exemplifies the Jessup spirit of camaraderie, academic excellence, competitiveness, and the appreciation of fellow competitors.

Given the short time the UW had to work with the teams, Eddy was incredibly pleased with the results.

“I think it would have been absolutely amazing if, on their first time out of the box, they’d been able to go beyond the preliminary rounds, particularly given the very short period of time we had to work with them in preparation,” he says.

From the experience they gained this year, Eddy thinks the teams are primed for next, which is why he hopes the program goes forward—with or without the UW’s assistance. After all, if a suicide bomber can’t stop a bunch of future lawyers, why should lack of funding?

Julie H. Case is the managing editor of Columns.

One Response to Trials By Fire

  1. alumni says:

    Great article. I really enjoyed every sentence. Nay, every word.

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