KABUL For the shy Afghan girl who sat quietly in a detention center with a pale blue headscarf, teenage rebellion had come at a heavy price: seven years in prison.
Engaged to an older man who had offered $5,000 to her father but in love with a boy she spoke to on the phone, the 16-year-old girl was hauled before a court that found her guilty of running away from home, according to an account she provided.
"I was engaged to an older man and I was not happy. He was painting his beard black," said the girl, who cannot be named because of rules protecting juvenile detainees.
Now pregnant, she said she did not know who the baby's father was, adding she had slept with both the boy she was in love with and the man she was engaged to. She also said she had been raped while in detention before being sent to the Kabul facility. The girl's story offers a glimpse into the nature of Afghanistan's rudimentary justice system, underscoring the uphill task ahead as U.S. President Barack Obama calls for improving the rule of law to match military gains in the country.
Obama has ordered an extra 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan to beat back a resurgent Taliban, but officials also recognize progress on civilian issues like corruption, governance and justice will be essential to bringing stability to the country.
"I've seen travesties in court," said Kimberly Motley, a U.S. lawyer who interviewed 348 detainees, judges and others for a report on the juvenile justice system and also represents the pregnant Afghan girl in an effort to win her freedom.
"I've seen kids not even being brought into court for their hearing. Cases without any witnesses. And more times, no evidence than any evidence. And the verdict is always guilty."
Young girls usually fare the worst within the system, she said. In a deeply conservative Muslim society where women were banned from education during Taliban rule, anything from trying to escape a forced marriage to walking down the street with a boy who is not a relative can land them in jail.
About half the young girls locked up in Afghan detention centres are charged with "moral crimes" like running away from home and adultery, Motley said. At times, runaways are booked on the surreal charge of "kidnapping" themselves, she said.
Though Afghan law does not specifically cite moral crimes like running away as illegal, judges often use Article 130 that allows courts to "rule in a way that attains justice in the best manner" when faced with a case where other laws do not apply.
"That opens up a window for all sorts of things," said Francesco Ponzoni, a legal adviser to the Italian Cooperation, the development arm of the Italian embassy.
Italy was the lead nation on justice in Afghanistan within the NATO alliance, and rule of law remains a focal point.
Aside from "moral crime," about 30 percent of the detained girls are locked up on murder charges, though often that is a case of guilt by association -- they may have been present when somebody else carried out a killing, Motley said. The rest are detained on assorted charges like theft.
With Afghan women -- especially in rural areas -- taught to play a passive role in public, the odds are further stacked against the young girls when they enter a courtroom.
"Culturally, they're put in a no-win situation," said Motley. "If they speak up, they look like they're going against the grain. If they don't speak up, it's an admission of guilt."
"MADE A MISTAKE"
Afghanistan is said to have as many as 30 juvenile detention centres with about 600 detainees, but detainees likely number closer to 1,000 if boys who are wrongly told they are over 18 and informal detention centres are included, Motley said.
The Italian Cooperation is trying to push alternatives to ordinary detention for juveniles and funded the construction of an "open" center in Kabul, where inmates are allowed to go to school or work during the day.
Still, only about 10 children are at the open center now, which is hampered by the reluctance of judges to send them there and limited transport available to shuttle children out and back.
At the closed detention center in Kabul, high concrete walls and barbed wire fence off the young Afghans from the outside world, prompting curious inmates to crowd around its grilled windows when visitors arrive.
In the female section, a room with benches, a carpet-weaving machine, a few sewing machines and paint peeling off the walls serves as a classroom.
A group of girls locked away in a room of bunk beds with red blankets jump up and demurely stand in attention when the warden throws open its heavy black doors. Some look scared.
"I made a mistake," one girl in a black headscarf said softly when asked how she ended up there.
(Additional reporting by Yousuf Azimy; Editing by Nick Macfie)
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)