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Prosecutor to help rebuild Afghan laws

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Posted: Sunday, September 24, 2006 12:00 pm | Updated: 3:16 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Michelle Guffey

Killeen Daily Herald

BELTON – For 15 years, Nelson Barnes' career as a prosecutor has flourished in Bell County, covering a spectrum of cases across the criminal justice system from speeding tickets to murder.

During his time in the Bell County district attorney's office, Barnes has grown to feel that our justice system may be flawed, but it is still one of the best systems in the world.

And it is a system that Barnes hopes to be able to be share with those in the Middle East.

In one week, the Texas native will be on a plane headed to Afghanistan, one of several who have been hired by the U.S. State Department to help the struggling country establish a democratic system of laws.

"My understanding is I'll be working with the top officials in (Afghanistan's) government toward revamping and reorganizing their courts system to try to get a more balanced and regular courts system in place," he said.

That will include helping the country to enforce the laws already in place.

Last year, Afghanistan held Democratic elections that chose a new president and created a new constitution.

It's a country that has seen its share of governments from monarchy to dictatorships.

Barnes hopes to be able to pass on what the U.S. has – a rule-of-law society – to help Afghanistan get established with a system that provides protection to its citizens.

"I think that is more the idea of the justice sector reform – to get a system in place that holds people accountable," he said.

It's a monumental task, one Barnes' feels compelled and honored to undertake – a way of giving back.

Freedom and the privileges that come with it are earned, Barnes said.

"We haven't earned it; to some extent, I think we have kind of taken it for granted," Barnes said. "My grandparents' (generation) had World War II. They earned us what we have here."

That's not to say the prosecutor doesn't think his time in Bell County has been less important. Barnes feels he has made a difference one case at a time, but the job with the state department felt like the right thing to do.

"The whole idea of going over and working in on the front lines of a government being founded, even on the sidelines standing and watching, will be the greatest thing," he said.

The job will be faced with challenges at every turn. While the U.S. operates on the concept of separation of church and state, that isn't the case there.

Most of the country's population is Muslim, and it is a country where women are not considered the equal of men, although there is some indication that the country is trying to change.

Afghanistan's new constitution guarantees that a third of its high-level cabinet appointments will belong to women in an effort to make females active members of their society.

"The biggest challenge will be seeing how we can fit their culture and their religion into the system," Barnes said. "I think they are trying to form a government where they are giving more rights to women."

Part of a rule-of-law society is creating equal rights.

The justice sector reform that Barnes will be a part of will not only try to create a criminal justice system, but also a family law system.

It will be an uphill battle. It took the U.S. more than a 100 years after the founding fathers created the Bill of Rights for women to have their rights recognized.

"I can't see that we are going to do any of this in the short term," Barnes said. "It's something that we are going to be in for the long run. It's generational."

It's a long way from where he thought he would be all those years ago as an undergraduate.

Barnes other passion in life is football. Away at college, his goal in life was to teach history and to coach football – a stereotype, but one that he was passionate about.

But then he went to law school and three days after graduating in 1991, he found himself a county attorney in Bell County and three years after that, an assistant district attorney.

"I have loved what I have done here in every way, shape and form being a prosecutor," Barnes said of his job in the DA's office. "Its one of the few lawyer jobs where you get to do what is the right thing."

"I always thought I would sit here at my desk until I was 50 years old."

But that changed two months ago when he heard about the position with the state department. He applied and waited.

A week ago he was offered the job of professional mentor to the ministry of the interior of the Republic of Afghanistan.

"I'm just excited about going over there and trying to do something," he said. "It sounds funny and idealistic and I'm pretty much a pragmatist, but it's a way to make a difference – or at least try."

Contact Michelle Guffey at mguffey@kdhnews.com

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