Fareed Ahmed, a bank clerk accused and convicted of stealing $150,000 from a bank account, stands in the dock next to court officers and lawyers during his trial in the new Anti-Corruption Justice Center. (Pam Constable/The Washington Post)

The courtroom was tense. The prosecutor’s team fiddled with its new equipment. The defendant, tall and imposing in the dock, fidgeted with his shirt cuffs. Then the lights were switched off and a video scene flashed on the wall. 

It showed a brief scuffle on a garden path outside a housing complex in the capital. Plainclothes detectives surrounded the defendant, who protested and pulled back sharply. The camera zoomed in on his hands and pockets, then shifted to the nearby bushes, where some crumpled currency bills lay. 

This was the “gotcha” moment in the first of two trials held in the new Anti-Corruption Justice Center this month, the opening salvo in the government’s ambitious, much-touted effort to penetrate and purge an entrenched system of high-level official corruption.

The proceedings were held last Saturday in a makeshift courtroom, hastily converted from a cafeteria, deep inside a high­security police compound. There were U.N. and international police officials in the audience, taking notes and listening to simultaneous translation on earphones, and a bank of TV cameras filming at the back.

The government’s case was meticulously prepared, a bribery sting with marked bills and tapped cellphones. The chief judge, who had granted the defense an extra week to prepare, read the defendant his rights. The young prosecutor, clad in a flimsy velvet robe with gold trim, recited a lengthy charge sheet.

Abdulhai Jurat, a former military prosecutor accused of bribery, stands in the dock surrounded by police at his trial in the new Anti-Corruption Justice Center. (Pam Constable/The Washington Post)

“We caught him red-handed . . . this was in flagrante delicto,” the prosecutor declared after the incriminating video was switched off. 

The defendant, Abdulhai Jurat, stood silently through most of the trial, but his attorney presented an energetic and detailed defense. He challenged the government’s right to monitor phone calls, charged that the video had been doctored and suggested that the crumpled bills in the garden had been planted there beforehand. 

“This case has been a conspiracy against my client,” he declared, stabbing the air dramatically. “I watched the video five times and it never shows him throwing the money out.” 

Finally, Jurat spoke briefly from the dock, denouncing the proceeding as a “show trial” and adding, “At the end of 35 years of service, I should be appreciated, not tried in front of the media.” Ten minutes later, he was convicted of accepting a $750 bribe and sentenced to 21/2 years in prison. 

To some observers, the relatively minor case was an anticlimactic disappointment after months of official buildup. Afghanistan’s ­attorney general, Farid Hamidi, had pledged that his new anti-
corruption team would go after individuals considered too powerful to touch and would concentrate on schemes involving more than $100,000. It was widely anticipated that the team would soon put two senior Interior Ministry officials on trial, a politically explosive move. 

In this first case, however, officials said it was not the amount of the bribe that mattered. It was that Jurat was himself a longtime military prosecutor. The cash he was convicted of pocketing came from relatives of an ex-cop — sent to prison for illegally keeping his service weapon — whom Jurat had the power to set free. The attorney general’s office, long discredited as politicized and corrupt, was going after one of its own.

“We want to show that we are serious, and we want to start by cleaning our own yard,” Hamidi said in an interview before the trial. He said that he had fired or transferred 34 prosecutors since taking office last spring and that more-complex cases against influential individuals would take longer to complete. “This is not a show for the international community. It is a fight for the future of Afghanistan,” he said. 

The second trial held last week did involve a large sum: $150,000, which had been withdrawn illegally from the bank account of a dead man in 2010. But the accused was a 23-year-old bank clerk who claimed that a senior bank official, now missing abroad, was behind the crime. A critical piece of evidence could not be found, and the three-judge panel deliberated for less than 10 minutes before sentencing the clerk to 10 years in prison. 

Fareed Ahmed had defended himself vigorously and insisted that he was innocent. In a dramatic exchange, he demanded to see bank records of the transactions and the prosecution’s proof that the computer codes and forged signatures used to withdraw the money were his. The prosecutor said police experts had corroborated the information, but the clerk insisted he had a right to view the evidence. 

“If the prosecution has documents, please take them out for all to see,” Ahmed appealed to the chief judge, gesturing from the dock. “Are there bank statements that would show I am a criminal? If so, then I am a criminal,” he said. “If they do not, then the prosecutors are wrong and the decision is up to you.” 

At the judge’s nod, the prosecution team scrambled for minutes to find the papers among an 800-page case file, and finally gave up. After a short recess, the three-judge panel found Ahmed guilty. 

International experts who watched the proceedings said they were heartened by some aspects, such as the high technical quality of the prosecution and the judges’ insistence on allowing a thorough defense. But they were dismayed by other flaws, including the speedy convictions that made it appear that the judges had made up their minds in advance.

“These aren’t the highest officials, but this is a very good start,” said Michael Hartmann, who heads the rule-of-law department at the U.N. mission here. “Never in Afghanistan has a minister or a governor been prosecuted. This is the first attempt to stand up a truly national anti-corruption court insulated from political pressure. Everyone here realizes that people are watching. We have great hopes.”

Others were more skeptical, noting that after two years the reformist government of President Ashraf Ghani has made only modest gains in its efforts to rein in the corruption that has permeated public life over the past 15 years, as Western economic and military spending created a class of wealthy contractors and generated opportunities for graft in construction projects, logistical operations, fuel transport and other services.

In a report this month, the group Integrity Watch Afghanistan said that Ghani’s government had made “some progress” in fighting the “massive systemic corruption” that mushroomed under former president Hamid Karzai’s administration. But it said the lack of a broad institutional response remains “the most important factor” behind public discontent with the government.

The group praised the establishment of the Anti-Corruption Justice Center, especially because it has placed “police, prosecutors and judges all under one roof,” but said it was not clear “who would decide on the level of seriousness or the targeting of cases” and recommended that an independent commission oversee the program.

John F. Sopko, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, called corruption “a strategic threat” to Afghanistan’s future and to “everything the United States is trying to accomplish” here. He described prosecutions as a crucial part of fighting corruption and said the initial efforts by the Justice Center “could be an encouraging first step. We’ll be watching closely.”