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British private security company employee jailed by Afghans amid crackdown

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By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 10:42 PM

KABUL - Afghan authorities this week arrested a British private security company employee and sentenced him to eight months in jail, the latest move in the government's crackdown on private security firms.

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Global Strategies Group consultant Michael Hearn was arrested Wednesday for allegedly failing to register weapons with the government.

The move comes amid uncertainty about how aggressively and quickly the Afghan government intends to disband the vast network of private security companies that flourished in the country as security worsened in recent years.

A day before the arrest and prosecution, Afghan officials announced they would take a more lenient approach to expelling the groups, an acknowledgment that the country's security forces are not yet up to the task of protecting diplomatic installations and other sensitive sites.

At stake is the viability of hundreds of reconstruction projects and other initiatives funded by U.S. taxpayers. International donors keep the Afghan government afloat financially, and their ability to strengthen governance over the next few years could determine whether U.S. forces can withdraw from a country capable of managing its own security.

"Over the last year, there seems to be more scrutiny on private security companies, including increasing arrests and fines," said Kimberley Motley, an American lawyer who has represented foreign private security contractors detained in Afghanistan. "There is an argument to be made that the reason for this is to slowly terminate private security companies through guerrilla tactics."

Hearn was taken into custody Wednesday after a court hearing that company officials assumed would resolve an administrative inquiry over weapons registration.

Global, a British firm, has large Defense Department contracts and oversees security at Kabul International Airport.

Tim Matthews, a spokesman for the company, said the case stemmed from an inspection of Global's main Kabul armory a few months ago. Afghan authorities found 11 weapons that were not on the list of firearms registered with the Afghan government, he said. Matthews said the additional weapons were unserviceable guns sent from personnel outside Kabul, to be used for spare parts. He said all weapons were acquired legally and were kept safe at all times.

Hearn was taken into custody after the hearing, and company officials were informed that he had been sentenced to eight months in jail on weapons charges.

"We are cooperating fully with the Afghan authorities," Matthews said.

Officials at the Afghan attorney general's office could not be reached Thursday, which is now a weekend day in Kabul.

A spokesperson for the British Embassy in Kabul said the embassy was providing consular assistance.

The detention came a day after the Afghan government announced that certain security companies would be allowed to stay in Afghanistan until their contracts expire. They include those working on development contracts and security personnel working for NATO and diplomats.

Manan Farahi, the official in charge of implementing the ban, said in a news conference Tuesday that foreign armed guards who remain would have to abide by a code of conduct, one that has not been described in detail.

In another development, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. military is ending ties with an Afghan security firm, run by relatives of President Hamid Karzai, that has been accused of bribing both government officials and Taliban commanders, according to documents obtained by the AP on Thursday.

The AP said the move follows a congressional report in June that said the Watan Group bribed Afghan officials to get exclusive control over a key NATO supply route in southern Afghanistan and paid Taliban commanders to avoid attacks along the highway.

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