Reforms needed to fight Afghan corruption, says former prosecutor

Afghanistan needs to reform its judiciary and police to make them capable of fighting corruption, rather than set up a new watchdog as recommended by the West, the country's former top prosecutor said today.

Corruption in Afghanistan has become a crucial issue for newly re-elected President Hamid Karzai, with US officials tying the future of the military operation defending his government to his efforts to stop graft.

In an interview, Abdul Jabar Sabet, who served as Afghanistan's top prosecutor for nearly two years until July 2008, said poor salaries of police forced them to take bribes, while top officials were enriching themselves with impunity.

"Here we have two types of people involved in corruption: poor government officials who need it for survival and those officials who have houses in Kabul and other parts of the country, but want to have one (also) in Dubai," he told Reuters.

US officials have discussed a proposal to create an anti-corruption watchdog. Sabet said that was likely to be a waste of money, as long as the police, judges and prosecutors are so poorly trained and paid.

"At the end of the day any case under the law will have to be dealt with by the police, then investigated by the related prosecutor and finally the judiciary will decide on it," Sabet said.

"The commissions will have the role of observers and will not have effective impact in reducing corruption."

Sabet, who lived in the West for years, took the job in 2006 announcing a "holy war" against administrative corruption, but failed to bring to justice key figures in the government, among Western development contractors and firms often dealing in hundreds of millions of dollars.

After a few days in the job, he arrested some low ranking government officials for graft, but realised that prosecuting those at higher levels was nearly impossible because of pressure from senior officials, he said.

"I had detained a civil servant who had exempted a foreign company from paying $4.5m (£2.7m) in tax to the government, but could not keep him in detention more than a few days," he said.

He declined to name any senior officials who pressured him while in office or who he believed were now involved in graft.

A staunch critic of Karzai who was a minor candidate for president in the Aug. 20 election, Sabet said even Karzai himself seemed powerless to touch those figures.

The endemic corruption has made many Afghans feel nostalgic for the Taliban rule, when people found guilty of graft risked being whipped in public.

Ordinary Afghans have to pay small bribes to get a driver's licence, or even to get officials to accept tax payments. Meanwhile, powerful figures often commit crimes with impunity.

Karzai came under international criticism earlier this year for pardoning a group of drug dealers, one of whom was the nephew of his politically powerful campaign manager.

Karzai, in his first news conference after winning a second term this week, said a campaign against the issue was his top priority, but gave no details of new measures.

The United States wants Karzai to arrest and prosecute corrupt government officials to shore up his legitimacy, the top US military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, said yesterday.

"He's got to take concrete steps to eliminate corruption ... you have to show those visible signs," Mullen said.

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