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Top Prosecutor Targets Afghanistan's Once-Untouchable Bosses

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 23, 2006

KABUL -- All day the petitioners came, crowding into the shabby hall and spilling onto the muddy lawn, waiting for hours to see a man they hoped would bring them relief and protection from the corrupt administrators, abusive security officials and wealthy landowners who hold sway in much of Afghanistan.

One by one, the petitioners entered his office and told their stories. The details differed, but the theme was always the same. A man from Baghlan province said his son was murdered and the authorities were protecting the influential killer. A woman from Logar province said her home was confiscated by powerful businessmen and no one would help her get it back.

Behind a huge wooden desk, Abdul Jabbar Sabit listened intently, stroking his bushy gray beard. Then he nodded brusquely and swung into action, barking orders into a cellphone or scribbling notes on a legal petition. Clerks scurried in and out purposefully. Visitors beamed with gratitude and bowed out of the room.

"It's like this every day. Sixty, a hundred people. Before, they could never get access to the proper authorities. Now they think I can help them," Sabit said during a lunch break in his office last week. "I am one man. I have no soldiers, I just have the law, and in some parts of this country there is no rule of law. If I am having any success, it is to reveal that."

Sabit, 61, has been Afghanistan's attorney general for less than three months, and he has already earned a reputation as a fearless, even fanatical, crusader. Blunt and impatient, he appears eager to shake up the status quo and indifferent to his growing list of enemies in high places.

A longtime resident of Montreal, he returned home to Kabul in 2002 to work with a human rights organization. He was later named as a special adviser at the Interior Ministry, where he headed a campaign last summer to crack down on alcohol sales and prostitution at foreign-owned bars in the capital.

In September, President Hamid Karzai made him the nation's top prosecutor and announced that he would launch a major campaign against corruption, a practice that has plagued Karzai's administration since it replaced the Taliban in late 2001. Now, the problem has grown so pervasive that it is viewed as a major factor in the revival of the Taliban insurgency battling U.S., NATO and Afghan forces.

"Getting rid of corruption in the Afghan administration is an absolute necessity," Karzai said in a radio interview this month. Admitting that previous anti-corruption efforts were "not what we had hoped for," he said that unless the problem was addressed, the country's hope for progress would be dashed and its credibility with international donors lost.

In his first weeks in office, Sabit has turned his attention to once-untouchable bosses. In particular, he has taken on powerful officials in two provinces, Herat in the west and Balkh in the north. Last month he made trips to both places, accompanied by teams of prosecutors, to investigate allegations of corruption.

In both cases, however, his efforts have been resisted. Balkh Gov. Atta Mohammed, a former militia leader, waved off his allegations and accused Sabit of waging a political and personal vendetta. Then Sabit said that he had found evidence that the mayor of Herat city was embezzling funds, but that he was unable to arrest him. The mayor is a protege of Ismail Khan, a former militia leader and provincial governor who is now minister of water and power.

Karzai, asked about the official resistance, said he had given Sabit full legal authority and would stand firmly behind him. Many members of parliament have also rallied to Sabit's cause with supportive messages and speeches.

"He is wonderful, and we all need to support his reforms, or he will be a lonely person facing many difficulties," said Shukria Barakzai, a legislator from Kabul and a democracy activist. "People are really thirsty for justice, but Dr. Sabit is in such a hurry, and he has opened so many lines of battle, that he is taking many risks."

Despite his determined demeanor and flair for publicity, Sabit admitted he may not be a match for such regional bosses.

"I did not anticipate how much resistance there would be from warlords to the rule of law," he said. "Now I see how powerful they are. The president is trying to bring justice, but we cannot do this alone. We need the international community to get these warlords out of our way."

Even in the capital, Sabit has encountered problems trying to pursue well-connected individuals. One case involves the community of Sherpur, where police bulldozed squatters' huts in 2004 to make way for ornate new mansions now occupied by some of Kabul's most powerful residents. According to Sabit, most of the new residents never paid the government a penny for the land, and so far he has been unable to force them to do so.

Some officials are so accustomed to flouting the law that they walk into Sabit's office expecting him to back off. One day last week, he said, two uniformed military officers came to demand that he release another officer who he said had been caught stealing military equipment.

"They were trying to pressure me. I got really angry and threw them out," Sabit said with indignant satisfaction.

Ahmad Behzad, a legislator from Herat, said many residents were delighted to see the new prosecutor target corruption in a region where public revenue has long been pocketed by local authorities. But he also said the problem was so old and deep that it would take sustained efforts to successfully prosecute.

"I agree with what he is doing, but will he take time to get to the roots or just put a few people in prison?" asked Behzad. "Will he have enough power to make a real difference, to get to the senior people behind the corruption? We are all waiting to see."

Whatever becomes of Sabit's high-profile crusades, he has already made a difference to hundreds of modest Afghans whose legal grievances have gone unheard, sometimes for years, because their adversaries or abusers were simply more powerful. Now, at least someone is listening.

"I have been to so many offices and no one ever helped me before, because I don't know anyone," said a poorly dressed widow in Sabit's waiting room last week, carrying a sheaf of old documents that she said proved she owned a certain piece of land. After a five-minute audience, Sabit ordered an assistant to look into her claim, and the widow wept in gratitude as she left.

Later, another woman asked to speak with him privately. They went into a side room, and she described how a security official in her province was kidnapping and molesting children. Sabit promised to do what he could and asked a clerk to show her out.

"She's scared," the prosecutor said grimly. "This man is a warlord and he is being protected by powerful people." He stared for a moment and stroked his beard. "I think I'll go there next."

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