KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Justice comes swift and severe in the town of Senjaray. It comes in tarrings and in public humiliation. The guilty are sometimes banished from town, or lose their hands to an axe's blade. Some are executed.

These are not punishments decided by Kandahar's coalition-backed courts. They are meted out by tribunals of roaming Taliban religious leaders who act as judges.

Three Senjaray farmers interviewed by The Canadian Press described the murky world of Taliban justice that, despite NATO's presence in the country, still prevails in some towns and villages across Afghanistan's troubled south.

The accuser and defendant are brought before several Taliban judges, who consult thick tomes of Shariah case law in the town's dusty gardens as more than a dozen armed fighters stand guard.

After deliberating, two judges return to deliver the verdict. Punishment comes within hours or days.

The farmers - Haji Qudratullah, 37, Haji Shamsullah, 32, and Haji Mohammed, 45 - say some locals in Senjaray, in Zhari district, prefer the Taliban's harsh rule of law to what they see as Kandahar's slow and corrupt legal system.

"You need money for everything," Mohammed, who grows grapes and wheat, said through a translator about the province's court system.

"If you don't have money, you cannot do anything. If you owe money, and you pay the money, again, it's going to take a lot of time (for a ruling)."

The Taliban has seized on the exasperation Kandaharis feel towards the current administration by establishing a so-called shadow government whose tendrils snake across the provincial countryside.

The insurgents have their own governor, district chiefs and judges, according to half a dozen interviews with Talibs, residents of Kandahar city and Afghan villagers.

A Taliban spokesman claimed the districts of Shah Wali Khot, Panjway, Zhari, Maruf, Miyannasheen, parts of Arghistan, and the village of Sanzari remain under the control of the insurgents.

Only the districts of Arghandab, Daman, Dand and Spin Boldak remain under the Afghan government's control.

Such claims are difficult to verify, since the insurgents often grossly inflate the breadth of their power.

Indeed, the newly-appointed governor of Kandahar, Tooryalai Wesa, disputes the Taliban's claim to tracts of the province. Wesa said he heard no mention of a shadow Taliban government during his recent meetings with district governors.

"I highly doubt (the shadow government's existence) because I know ISAF and other international forces, they are working in the area, there are some operations going on," Wesa said.

"No, that's maybe a rumour."

Wesa's shadow government doppleganger is said to be Mahibullah Akhunzada. He replaced Mullah Mahmood, who was killed last year in an air strike in Khakrez district.

Akhunzada, 55, refused to speak with a Canadian journalist. However, he told an Afghan journalist there are shadow governors in all but three of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

Some villagers in Senjaray - footsteps west of Kandahar city - rely on the shadow government to solve their problems, Qudratullah said, because they think Kandahar is plagued by delays and dishonesty.

"They are most corrupt. It is not the government of poor people; it's the government of rich people," he said.

Canada's top diplomat in Kandahar, Elissa Golberg, said she has heard talk of corruption in the province's courts. But she added Canadians are working with Afghans to improve their justice system.

However, with only six judges to serve the whole province, Kandahar's justice system is stretched thin, Golberg said.

She added the insurgents hardly constitute a parallel government since they do not provide services like water, sanitation, education and health care.

"Frankly, it's not even widespread. It's in very specific pockets," Golberg said. "And it isn't as if the communities are interested or welcoming of this where it does occur."

But the farmers profess no preference for a Taliban or Western-backed government.

"We don't have any problem with the Afghan government," Shamsullah said.

"If they leave corruption, and if they won't corrupt anymore, no doubt we would come. It's our country; we will help them."

The Taliban is trying to woo Senjaray villagers, the farmers add. They say the insurgents have relented on some of their more rigid edicts. Men are not hassled for being clean shaven, for instance, and villagers are permitted to watch TV and listen to the radio - Western comforts forbidden by the Taliban when it was in power.

Paradoxically, shadow governor Akhunzada said the Taliban will revert to its old ways of hardline rule if the Islamic militant group returns to power.

The Taliban has also infiltrated Kandahar city, which was once considered relatively safe but is now deemed more dangerous, especially for foreigners.

The city is impoverished and criminal gangs know there is money to be made by kidnapping and selling foreigners, either for ransom or to the Taliban.

Residents say the insurgents have paralyzed Kandahar city with fear. Locals are afraid to send their children to school, invest their money or work with foreigners as translators or contractors.

Zahir Jan, 24, manages a coffee shop in the city. He said the Taliban have spies all over the city and people are fearful to say or do anything that might cause them to run afoul of insurgents.

"They are scared and fear that they get killed," Jan said.

Local shopkeeper Noor Ahmed, 37, said the recent acid attack on a group of schoolgirls frightened many Kandaharis.

"Everybody is running towards their homes at 6 p.m. because they feel fear," he said.

"While sitting in taxis and buses we can't talk to some one confidently, we think that the man we are talking to might be a Taliban spy."

-with files from A.R. Khan

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