Heroin smuggler is jailed for 16 years in Afghanistan

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A South African has been jailed for 16 years in Afghanistan for attempting to smuggle out more than 14lbs of heroin disguised as body-building supplements.

Even harsher sentences have been imposed on local citizens as the Afghan authorities, struggling with the highest opium production in the world, seek to emphasise that they are having some success in tackling the next stage of the trade – transporting and smuggling narcotics.

This year's opium crop is 8,000 tonnes so far, up by a quarter from 2006, with more than 40 per cent coming from Helmand province, where British troops are leading the fight against the Taliban. Much of the province's opium harvest is produced on government-owned land, and poppies have even been seen growing in police compounds.

Efforts to curb opium production remain bogged down in controversy over eradication methods and alleged corruption, with the largest growers repeatedly escaping attempts to destroy their crops. President Hamid Karzai has resisted American pressure to allow aerial spraying of poppy fields. He is supported by other Western countries, including Britain, which fear that such a campaign could also destroy food crops and threaten the health of farmers and their families.

Pointing out that in southern Afghanistan crop-spraying planes would be vulnerable to attack, one official described the proposal to spray as "a propaganda gift to the Taliban".

But a special government task force, created 30 months ago to investigate and prosecute drugs traffickers, claims it is making inroads against smugglers. Major cases are dealt with in Kabul to prevent powerful local figures from influencing the outcome.

Apart from this week's conviction of the South African smuggler, who was not named, other successes claimed by the task force this year were the seizure of more than 1.36 tonnes of opium and heroin in Helmand in September, and the jailing of five border policemen in the northern province of Takhar for between 16 and 18 years after they were caught with more than 100kg of refined heroin in an official vehicle.

The task force said an anti-smuggling operation at Kabul airport cracked a trafficking network with links to China, India and Dubai. Three ringleaders have just been sentenced to 16 years each. The authorities also emphasise that the recent jailing of Mesri Khan, a notorious trafficker, for 17 years shows that well-connected figures are not immune from prosecution.

But others express scepticism. "We hope that after dealing with mid-level couriers, the task force will work up to the major figures," said a Western counter-narcotics official. "They have the tools, but it depends on the political will."