First challenge for Karzai is to approve corruption charges

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's promise to stamp out corruption has come up against its first test with the revelation that indictments against five high-ranking politicians on charges thought to range from embezzlement to money-laundering need only his signature to proceed.

With the accused said to include serving cabinet members, prosecutions would send the strongest signal yet that Mr Karzai is serious about smashing the culture of impunity that has destroyed public confidence in his government.

"We have indictments with sufficient proof against five ministers," Attorney General Mohammed Ishaq Aloko said on Wednesday in an interview with Der Spiegel. "Two of them are in the current cabinet and three are former ministers... The President only has to grant his approval, then the trials can proceed."

Mr Aloko added separately that a number of lesser officials faced corruption charges and that successful prosecutions would result in stiff penalties.

Although Afghan law forbids the disclosure of the identities of the figures, there is mounting speculation that one is the Mining minister, Mohammad Ibrahim Adel, who allegedly took a $30m bribe from a Chinese mining firm before awarding it the rights to extract copper from Aynak, one of the largest unexploited deposits of the metal in the world. Mr Adel has fiercely denied the allegation.

Western diplomats said they were pleasantly surprised at the Attorney General's announcement. Although a major crimes task force backed by the UK and US was launched earlier this week, the cases awaiting Mr Karzai's approval have all been brought by prosecutors working directly for Mr Aloko.

"There seems to be more in the pipeline than we were expecting at this particular point," said one official. "It's encouraging to see that that." The new anti-corruption unit, dubbed the "Afghan FBI", has its sights on a number of other high-profile figures but may step in to help Mr Aloko's team trace illegal assets stashed abroad if required.

In yesterday's inauguration speech, Mr Karzai pledged that "those who spread corruption should be tried and prosecuted". Intense international pressure has been exerted on him to clear his cabinet of the warlords whose presence at the highest levels has been partially blamed for Afghanistan's deteriorating security. A new report by Oxfam found that 48 per cent of Afghans questioned pointed to corruption and the ineffectiveness of government as a key cause of conflict.

David Miliband, the British Foreign Minister, who attended Mr Karzai's inauguration, said the President had made a "significant statement but now it is time to deliver... What we need is for words to be turned into deeds. We have now got a very, very clear set of commitments on corruption and we expect him to deliver." Asked about his reaction to Mr Karzai's insistence on being flanked by his vice-presidential running mates, both of whom have been accused of appalling human rights abuses, Mr Miliband said: "What it shows is that we have a very long hill to climb in this country... But we shall be watching what [Mr Karzai] does."

Also of concern to anti-corruption campaigners was Mr Karzai's insistence that the High Office of Oversight, the existing anti-corruption commission, stay in place. Officials have criticised it for lacking the legal foundation to investigate and prosecute cases. Instead, it has to refer most duties to law enforcement agencies which are themselves often part of the problem.