By Joshua Partlow and Javed Hamdard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 3:19 PM
KABUL - A decision this week to drop corruption charges against an aide to President Hamid Karzai has outraged Afghan investigators who participated in the case and could undermine the pursuit of other corruption investigations, according to Afghan officials.
One police commander, upset that the attorney general is not pursuing the case against Mohammad Zia Salehi, asked Interior Minister Besmillah Khan Mohammady on Tuesday to drop six other cases against Afghan police officers suspected of involvement in drug trafficking, suggesting that justice could not be served in the present political climate. Mohammady, however, told the commander to proceed, the officials said.
"When I heard about Salehi, it really disappointed me, 100 percent," said one Afghan police official involved in the case.
Salehi, an official in Afghanistan's National Security Council who played a role in negotiations with the Taliban, was arrested in July on allegations of soliciting a bribe in return for helping to quash a separate corruption investigation. He was also accused of using a presidential slush fund, partly involving money from Iran, to pay off Karzai's supporters with cash and luxury vehicles.
The evidence was collected by a special Afghan police unit trained and advised by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, and the arrest was carried out by another U.S.-backed Afghan unit known as the Major Crimes Task Force.
But on the same day that Salehi was arrested, Karzai personally intervened to free him from jail. The palace's swift and angry response to the arrest led to a review of other corruption investigations and had a chilling effect on anti-corruption work, according to officials involved.
Salehi's case became a symbol of the delicate political balance that the United States must strike while attempting to fight graft and bribery at the highest levels of Afghan politics. Since then, U.S. anti-corruption efforts have been carried out less publicly in an effort to avoid provoking Karzai.
After weeks with little mention of Salehi, the attorney general's office decided this week to drop all charges against him, said deputy attorney general Rahmatullah Nazari. The New York Times first reported the decision Monday.
Nazari said that the only evidence against Salehi involved wire-tapped conversations in which he allegedly solicited the bribe. Under Afghan law, he said, taped phone conversations in financial cases are not admissible in court.
"That's why his investigation was stopped," Nazari said. "His case is finished."
Nazari said that if new evidence is discovered, the attorney general's office has the authority to reopen the case "and start the investigation from the beginning."
Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omer, said the palace does not comment on legal issues or decisions pertaining to the work of the attorney general's office. He also did not say whether Salehi was back at work on a normal schedule.
"We don't keep track of NSC staff attendance," he said.