Trial and Tribulations

Naim Amini fled Afghanistan to build a new life, a life now lost in the translation.

In the Islamic system, there's no jury, prosecutor or defense attorney. There is only the judge, who questions all of the witnesses, including the defendant, considers all of the evidence and then renders a verdict. In Afghanistan, a man on trial for a crime does not choose whether he wants to answer questions, to tell his side of things, to testify. The judge asks, he answers. That is how it is done.

After he was charged, Amini posted a $10,000 bond and entered a plea of not guilty. He was then appointed a defense attorney, Wayne Cole, a longtime Colorado assistant public defender. Cole met with Amini for the first time in October 1998. Mariam, who speaks fluent English, acted as a translator. A full-scholarship student at the University of Denver majoring in political science and economics, she'd recently returned from a semester abroad in London.

"Mr. Cole was very reassuring," Mariam recalls. "He told us the prosecution's case against my father was very weak. They only had the unsubstantiated accusations of this one girl and no physical evidence. So he said we should not worry so much."

Heartfelt appeal: Attorney Paul Grant has requested a new trial for Naim Amini -- a trial he'd understand.
John Johnston
Heartfelt appeal: Attorney Paul Grant has requested a new trial for Naim Amini -- a trial he'd understand.

Fifteen months passed while the case ground through the cogs of the system, delayed by continuance after continuance.

Cole never returned phone calls during this period, Amini says. They did not meet or speak again until January 4, 2000, one day before Amini's trial was finally set to begin. At that meeting, Cole relayed an offer from the People of Colorado: If Amini pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of attempted sexual assault, he would be sentenced to probation only, no prison time.

Amini refused the deal. He realized that pleading guilty to a sex crime might cause him to lose his political asylum and be deported to Afghanistan, where the Taliban were still in power. (Although Amini had passed the verbal test for citizenship, he had not yet taken his oath, and now the citizenship process was put on hold pending the outcome of his trial.) He figured the Taliban would chop off his head as a homecoming present. "They will kill me if I go back," he said.

And besides, why take a deal when the accusations against him were false? "What kind of man would I be," he asked, "if I said, 'Yes, I did this,' when I know it is a lie?"

Jury selection began the next morning. Once the jury was seated, the judge in the case, Scott Lawrence, directed the jurors to read a pamphlet explaining the principles and procedures of an American jury trial. "Did everyone have an opportunity to read the instructions that described the trial process?" he asked following a recess. "Anyone not understand? No hands are raised."

At no point did the judge, Amini's lawyer or anyone else take the time to make sure that the defendant also understood the process, the presumption of innocence, the roles of the prosecutor, judge and jury, or his right to testify in his own defense. "I kept thinking the judge or someone was going to ask me questions. I wanted to know what their questions were. I wanted to tell my story," Amini says today, speaking through his daughter. "I don't know how they made a decision without knowing my side of it."

Imagine that, for whatever reason, you move from this country to China. You can't speak the language, but you live there a few years and things are going okay -- until you're accused of a serous crime. You say you're innocent to whoever will listen, but the Chinese government puts you on trial anyway. At the trial, you're not really sure what's what and who's who, but you're pretty damn sure you know who the judge is, so you concentrate on him and wait for him to ask you some questions, even though you know the questions are going to be in Chinese. But that's okay, because the government has provided you with an interpreter who they promise speaks fluent English. This interpreter sits behind you during the trial, and the idea is that he's supposed to be whispering a simultaneous translation in your ear, just like they do for the ambassadors at the United Nations. Except once this guy starts whispering, you recognize that he's speaking English, but what kind of English? The accent is strange and heavy, and he keeps using slang and colloquialisms you don't understand. It's like he's speaking some sort of Cockney dialect, or Appalachian hillbilly patois. All while he's translating Chinese on the fly.

If Amini is telling the truth, this is what it was like for him to be on trial in Douglas County.

Amini does not speak English. His sons and daughters usually translate for him, but his sons and daughters were subpoenaed as witnesses by the prosecution, so they couldn't be inside the courtroom during his trial. Instead, the court system appointed him a translator, just as it had appointed him a defense attorney. The translator was David Maroofi, an Iranian who claimed to be fluent in both English and Farsi, the native language of Iran.

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