By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
KABUL -- Afghanistan's attorney general said Monday that his office is investigating five current and former cabinet ministers on allegations including embezzlement and fraud, a sign of growing momentum within the Afghan government to address the widespread corruption that has hobbled President Hamid Karzai's administration.
Combating corruption has emerged as a top priority here for the Obama administration as Karzai deliberates over appointments to the cabinet and to provincial governor posts for his new term. Despite his pledge last week to force top officials to declare their assets and the announcement of a new anti-corruption unit, many officials are skeptical about Karzai's willingness to remove his allies from power.
The investigations center on two current and three former cabinet ministers, Attorney General Mohammed Ishaq Aloko said in an interview. Although he declined to name them, other Afghan officials said one of the probes is looking at the minister in charge of organizing the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, a trip known as the hajj, which is made by tens of thousands of Afghans each year.
Within the past two months, two employees of the Hajj and Islamic Affairs Ministry have been arrested on accusations of trying to carry about $360,000, some of it hidden in biscuit boxes, through Kabul International Airport, Deputy Attorney General Fazil Ahmad Faqiryar said in an interview. The arrested employees, including the ministry's treasurer, allegedly extorted money from landlords around Mecca in return for directing pilgrims to their apartments, he said.
The arrested officials say "that the hajj minister is aware of this," Faqiryar said. "A simple treasurer does not have the ability to do this type of work. There must be some high-level involvement."
Another source familiar with the investigation said that the hajj minister, Sadiq Chakari, was suspected of extorting millions of dollars and that an arrest warrant was expected "very soon."
As the allegations circulated in Kabul, Chakari held a defiant news conference Monday and said the accusations against his ministry were baseless. "I am 100 percent innocent," he said. "If they have any proof against me, I am ready to accept it."
It was not clear whether the mines minister, Mohammad Ibrahim Adel, was among those being investigated. Adel was identified last week in a Washington Post article as having accepted a $30 million bribe in return for a development contract. He has denied the allegation.
The attorney general's investigations are being watched closely by U.S. officials in Afghanistan as a test case for Karzai's commitment to rooting out corruption in his inner circle. "There is a lot of interest in how President Karzai handles this," said one U.S. official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "This is not something that can be swept under the carpet."
The Taliban insurgency, meanwhile, continued to inflict a heavy toll on American troops, with four U.S. service members killed in fighting over the previous 24 hours, the U.S. military said in a statement Monday.
Three died Sunday in southern Afghanistan: One was killed in a small-arms attack, and two others died in a bombing. The fourth was killed Monday in eastern Afghanistan in a roadside bombing.