At 28 years old and educated only to the age of 16, Anil Chetri is a judge in a Maoist people's court. Since he opened his court three months ago in a house seized from a 'class enemy', 471 cases have been registered in the school book he uses for a ledger. 'Most of the cases are about land, polygamy and bad debts,' he said. After 10 years of civil war, there is a ceasefire and Nepal's powerful Maoist rebels are involved in peace talks with the government. Yet, despite complaints from the government and criticism from human rights groups, they have simultaneously expanded their court system across the country. Last week, in a room crowded with peasant litigants awaiting their own turn, judge Anil heard the case of a man who had married four wives in search of a son. He refused to support one wife and daughter. The judge consulted everyone present. 'This is the modern age,' said a woman onlooker to general agreement. 'You shouldn't discriminate between sons and daughters these days.' When it came, the judgment was decisive. 'You be careful,' Anil warned the man. 'Give money to your senior wife for your daughter.' Many foreign and domestic observers worry that the government is not equal to the Maoist challenge. The most recent round of peace talks was postponed because the government could not agree on its own position. Meanwhile, regional administrators sit isolated in their offices as the rebels spread their influence in the villages. At Taratal, 80km from Nepalganj, the rebels have established another court. Outside the building children play on scales dating from when it was a government facility for cotton farmers. One of the judges is Sushila Daiat, 22, who can neither read nor write. Before the ceasefire began in April she was a guerilla fighter. According to her, the harshest sentence she has imposed is six months in a labour camp to two young men accused of rape. In an echo of Mao Zedong's original methods in revolutionary China, Nepal's Maoists claim that their criminal system is designed to force offenders to recognise their errors. 'Our main aim in sending a person to labour camp is to make him a good person,' said Ms Shushila. One of the convicted rapists, Liyat Chaudhary, 22, said that the rebels had initially beaten him for 'telling lies'. His defence that the sex was consensual means little to the court, because under 'Maoist law' all sex outside marriage is illegal. 'It's not good for the society or the country,' another judge explained. 'That thing is only for animals, not people.' Despite the court's failings, even government officials admit that people's courts have proved popular, particularly in the settling of civil disputes. 'In a loans case, a poor person can never take a rich man to the government court,' lawyer Panchpal Shahi said. Cases in the official courts could cost a small fortune in fees and bribery, he explained, and frequently could take at least six years to actually settle.