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Afghan justice conference meets in Rome

Rome, July 2, 2007 (AP): The U.N. chief, the Afghan president and other top officials gather in Rome this week to discuss how to strengthen Afghanistan's frail justice system amid the country's violence.

The conference on Monday and Tuesday will examine a legal system largely destroyed by more than 25 years of violence. From reconstructing buildings destroyed by fighting to training magistrates, the challenges to establishing the rule of law in Afghanistan are enormous, experts say.

The event opens with closed-door technical panels focusing on access to justice and human rights, legislative processes and coordination among law-enforcement officials. Discussion will also focus on judicial reforms and financial aid for the justice sector, according to Italian Foreign Ministry officials.

"The aim of the conference is to stress how the justice system represents a priority ... to consolidate democracy in Afghanistan," Pasquale Ferrara, Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters ahead of the conference.

Afghani President Hamid Karzai, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema are scheduled to address the conference on Tuesday. Italian Premier Romano Prodi, who will open the conference's second day, is scheduled to hold talks with Karzai on Monday.

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad, NATO's Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Tom Koenigs, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, also will be among the participants, the Italian Foreign Ministry said.

"There needs to be donor commitment," said Geralyn Busnardo, an official with the Rome-based International Development Law Organization, or IDLO, which has helped rebuild the Afghan judiciary.

"We need to have a plan for the next five years, perhaps not necessarily a comprehensive, full-blown strategy, but we need to have some sort of a plan that talks about where we're going to be in five years," she said. "That was something that was not well done for the past five years."

Issues on the agenda include prison reform and legal training. The conference will try to provide concrete tools to improve coordination among law-enforcement officials and tackle corruption.

Some of the main challenges in Afghanistan's legal system include improving professional training, achieving consistent interpretation and application of law by judges, as well as building schools and courthouses.

There are some 1,400 judges in the country, according to IDLO, which said it is working to establish the use of private attorneys to represent individuals in criminal or civil cases — something there's no history of in the country. There are about 200 such lawyers now.

The Afghan police and the NATO-led international contingent have struggled in the face of intense fighting by resurgent Taliban fighters, especially in the country's south.

"With rule of law and security, it's a little bit of what came first, the chicken or the egg," said Busnardo. "What the international community has decided to do is to do them at the same time."

Italy has long maintained that nation-building measures must accompany the military campaign.

For 2007, Italy has allocated $13.47 million to rebuild the justice sector in Afghanistan, mainly for infrastructure and legal training, and it plans to give $18.18 million more, according to the Foreign Ministry.

The Rome conference gathers regional players such as Pakistan along with foreign ministers from European countries, NATO and EU representatives, and delegations from the United States, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

Italy has 2,000 troops in Afghanistan, deployed between Kabul and Herat.