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Justice in limbo

Mir Sediq Zaliq
State prosecutors have nominally pursued hundreds of corruption cases in the past two years. But even when evidence piles up against top officials, they admit they can't touch them.
8.08.2011  |  Kabul
Waiting for a working bank and a working justice system: the broader population takes a back seat to machinations at the top. (Photo: Zafar Shah Rouyee)  
Waiting for a working bank and a working justice system: the broader population takes a back seat to machinations at the top. (Photo: Zafar Shah Rouyee)  

Never a shining model of judicial action, high-profile anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan appear to have largely ground to a halt after the eruption of the Kabul Bank scandal.

Dozens of people, including ministers and parliamentarians were as shareholders allegedly involved in mismanagement of the bank and the questionable lending and borrowing of almost 900 million US dollars.

"All wrong-doers, whoever has violated the law, if there is a violation of the law, will be dealt with legally and through the legal channels of Afghanistan," President Hamid Karzai said as the scale of the financial disaster was revealed this spring.

However, only two of the bank's top excutives, former chairman Sherkhan Farnood, and former chief executive Khalilullah Ferozi, were arrested. Whether they will stand trial remains to be seen. 

The writing has long been on the wall. Just one failed corruption case outlined earlier by Deputy Attorney General Rahmatullah Nazari was enough to show that the justice system was in deep trouble.

“If we send people to arrest him, we would need a whole police unit,” Nazari said of an unnamed deputy minister who had been sentenced in absentia to five years in jail but could not be taken in because he is protected by a warlord. 

“There will be a shootout, bloodshed and young men will die,” Nazari told reporters in Kabul.

allied himself with a lot of former warlords and other influncial people, to get teh seat in 2009, is accused of being soft to corruption cases because most of those people are linked to his political allies

Having allied himself with former warlords and other influential figures to get reelected in 2009, Karzai is partly blamed for the inertia, since those under investigation are often politically linked to him. 

Potent precedents

Almost a decade after the introduction of post-Taliban justice, the numbers of the apparently untouchable have swollen, despite the efforts of those trying to uphold the law. At the same press conference held by Nazari, it was said that at least 20 cases involving senior government officials are underway, with scant hope of any of them being prosecuted.

If any doubts remained, precedents show what to expect if the line is crossed. In July 2010, Mohammad Zia Salehi, a member of the National Security Council and close aide to Karzai, was arrested by a US-backed law enforcement unit which had presented the attorney general with evidence that Salehi had asked for bribes. The president himself ordered Salehi’s release two hours later, an official in the attorney general’s office said on condition of anonymity.

In February, police detained presidential economics adviser Noorullah Delawari on corruption charges. Delawari, an ethnic Pashtun who was governor of the Central Bank before being appointed as the director for the Afghan Investment Support Agency, was released at the orders of the presidential palace.

“There are instances where high-ranking individuals who stand accused of governmental corruption have left the country by special intervention of President Karzai,” said the deputy speaker of Parliament, Ahmad Behzad. “There are [also] cases where prison sentences were overturned, and thanks to Mr. Karzai’s support, people remain in the comfort of their homes rather than being behind bars.” 

Further undermining matters, influential figures are directly shaping corruption cases to discredit or pressure rivals, Behzad claimed: “When judicial and authoritative systems are used as a tool for settling political scores and legal actions are blocked by power and influence, you cannot hope to eradicate corruption in Afghanistan.”

Cases still piling up

Meanwhile, the backlog of cases continues to grow. A special anti-corruption prosecution unit was set up in 2009 under the supervision of the attorney general's office has so far evaluated almost 1,000 cases of serious corruption in state institutions and structures. 

"Thanks to Mr. Karzai’s support, people remain in the comfort of their homes rather than being behind bars.” Deputy speaker of parliament

“The sums of defrauded money in these cases exceed millions of dollars and the accused are mostly high-ranking government officials, including ministers, provincial governors and independent directorate heads,” said Amanullah Iman, spokesman for the office.

According to Iman, of the 922 cases pursued by April, 157 were sent to a special anti-corruption court for judgement. 

But in the avoidance of major repercussions, “shootouts and bloodshed”, only the smaller fry can be expected to face the consequences. 

Selective justice

People lower down the chain are more vulnerable to prosecution for crimes committed and alleged.

Mohammad Nasir (pseudonym), the head of a government department in Kabul, was arrested with his nephew after grabbing one of hundreds of plots of land belonging to the defence ministry that were sold off in an illegal deal by a warlord. They spent a week in police custody before Nasir paid a bribe for their release, while no one else was touched, he claimed. 

“If you are powerful you can do whatever you want and there is no law for you,” he said. “But if you are weak and don’t have lots of money or senior government officials don’t support you, then you are an easy target for police and prosecutors who want to show the media and public that they are doing their jobs.”

Abdul Mubeen Mahmoudi (pseudonym), returned to Afghanistan in 2008 after completing a master’s degree course abroad. After six months in a senior ministry position he was arrested and sent to jail for four months for embezzlement.

Mahmoudi strenuously denies any wrong-doing: “They knew it was the minister who took that large sum of money, but since they could not arrest him, I was used as a scapegoat,” he said, adding that he was released on bail and bribed prosecutors and judges to close his case. 

The ethnicity factor

Then there are claims of ethnic discrimination in the way investigations are targeted. A day before Delawari’s arrest in February, police also arrested former transport minister Enayatullah Qasimi on corruption charges. After Delawari - a Pashtun - was released, Karzai came under pressure by Hazara members of parliament and Hazara leaders to release Qasimi.

 "There is very little to all this hype about the fight against corruption.”

“This is the first time that the Afghan government acted to detain a former high ranking official in connection with corruption,” said a statement issued by the nationwide network of Hazaras.  “It coincides with a time where the corruption level in the government, and especially in the attorney general’s office itself, has assumed outrageous proportions.

The attorney general’s spokesman Iman noted that Qasemi had fled the country since allegations were first made five years ago, thereby delaying proceedings against him. Claims of ethnic discrimination were invalid, he stressed.

“Whenever we arrest a powerful person, they attribute political or ethnic overtones to the case and in that way apply pressure on the attorney general’s office,” Iman said.  

Too deep to change?

Other high-profile corruption cases that have yet to see decisive action include those against Mohammad Siddiq Chakari, the interim head of the Islamic Affairs Ministry, and another former transport minister, Hamidullah Qaderi. Again, critics say these figures are protected and will not be touched, regardless of any culpability. 

“Everyone knows the connections that people like Chakari, Qaderi and Qasemi have, and it’s evident that they are supported by individuals with high rank and influence,” the former MP Ranjbar said.

There is no denying the seriousness of the problem overall: In 2010, the global corruption watchdog Transparency International ranked Afghanistan in 176th place globally in its level of rot, ahead only of Myanmar and Somalia.

But observers could be excused for being additionally skeptical about successive measures to combat corruption, when denial seems to be one of them. One of the new structures created is a high commission for supervision of the implementation of anti-corruption strategy. Its director, Abdul Rahman Lodin, strenuously rejects claims that the corrupt receive protection from top officials.

“In my 10 years of tenure in different fields, I have never heard anything to suggest that a high-ranking official has done this,” he said. 

Some people believe that graft is now too deeply engrained in Afghan society to root out.

“In Afghanistan, every appointed official has to give ‘tax’ to their superiors, it’s like if you have rented a shop and pay a monthly rent,” Ranjbar said. “So there is very little to all this hype about the fight against corruption.”