Afghan Gen. Mohammad Moeen Faqir appears at his trial on embezzlement and corruption charges. (Pamela Constable/The Washington Post)

They were important men — tall and imposing, well-dressed and well-connected, used to giving orders and getting respect. One was a white-haired army general, the other a wealthy entrepreneur — both members of the Afghan elite long considered too powerful to touch.

But last week, Gen. Mohammad Moeen Faqir, the former commander of embattled Helmand province, and Abdul Ghafar Dawi, the director of a large fuel company and other businesses, chafed in silence as prosecutors in an anti-corruption court charged them with embezzlement and abuse of authority.

The two brief trials, which concluded with prison terms and large fines imposed on both men, were among a clutch of high-profile anti-corruption cases brought by the Afghan government in recent weeks. The other convicted defendants included prison officials who made deals to release inmates early, bank officials who made loans with fake collateral and senior military officers who schemed to steal thousands of gallons of generator fuel. 

Together, the cases are part of an accelerating campaign, headed by Attorney General Farid Hamidi, to convince the Afghan public and Afghanistan’s foreign backers that the government, plagued by a raft of other problems, is making significant progress in efforts to end an entrenched culture of impunity and entitlement among the country’s military and civilian elites.

“When we started out, everyone was skeptical. Now they are starting to believe,” said Hamidi, who was appointed 18 months ago by President Ashraf Ghani. “These cases show that money and power are not a guarantee. We face many difficulties, but we are committed. We still do not have complete justice in Afghanistan, but we no longer have complete impunity.”

Business owner Abdul Ghafar Dawi testifies in his own defense at his trial on embezzlement and corruption charges. (Pamela Constable/The Washington Post)

Hamidi’s efforts have met with dramatic setbacks. One was the unsolved double murder of two police investigators on their way to work at the Anti-Corruption Justice Center. Another was the defiance of Abdurrashid Dostum, the country’s first vice president and a former militia boss, who was accused of ordering the rape of a political rival last year. Dostum refused to be questioned by Hamidi’s office and fled to Turkey, where he remains in self-imposed exile.

There have also been complaints that Hamidi was failing to go after the most influential Afghans linked to corruption, and that the effort was politically motivated or aimed at distracting the international community from the government’s failures. But such criticism has diminished as prosecutors have worked through several hundred cases, taken prominent people into custody for trial and sent some of them to prison. 

To date, Hamidi’s aides said, 1,097 cases have been tried in three anti-corruption courts, 468 people have been sent to prison, and repayments and fines totaling more than $14million have been ordered. In the generator-fuel scheme, two army colonels were sent to prison for 18 and 20 years and fined more than $1.5 million.

“This is unprecedented,” said Kawun Kakar, managing partner of a private law firm in Kabul. “After years in which nobody, not a deputy minister or a general, has been tried or convicted of corruption, in the past year there have been a number of high officials and well-connected people convicted. It is a very stark contrast.” Even if progress has been slow, he added, “they are laying the groundwork for larger, more organized cases with even wider implications.”

Rohullah Abed, executive director of the justice center, where the trials took place, put it another way. When “powerful people see us coming, they are a little afraid now,” he said.

They also fight back, hiring multiple defense lawyers, packing courtrooms with supporters and rebutting charges with an array of arguments. During their recent trials, both Faqir and Dawi seemed confident and relaxed, exchanging nods and smiles with co-defendants and lawyers as they listened to the proceedings, and greeting well-wishers during court breaks as guards with handcuffs hovered at a respectful distance. 

In both cases, the defendants and their attorneys also made emotional pleas for leniency or dismissal based on their many years of contributions to Afghanistan’s economic development and national defense — character portraits that contrasted sharply with the grubby accusations against them.

Faqir, who served in the military for 38 years before his arrest, was charged with abusing his authority by appropriating military vehicles for his personal use and ordering 30 active-duty soldiers to serve as guards and drivers at his private homes. He and several other officers were separately charged with embezzlement for keeping large amounts of cash that had been intended to be used to purchase food for combat troops under his command. 

“My client has risked his life. He has fought terrorists and Taliban. . . . It was not a vacation,” declared Faqir’s attorney, Abdul Jalil, arguing that he deserved to have his home and family protected and that there was nothing “abnormal” about the practice. “To go after high-value figures is not good for the country,” he added.

In the end, the three-judge panel sentenced Faqir to nine years in prison and ordered him to repay $1.2 million for the military rations.

The case against Dawi, one of the most successful and politically connected business owners in Afghanistan, was more complex. At the heart of the prosecution were charges going back a decade, alleging that his company manipulated bids and contracts for aviation fuel and facilities, establishing a “monopoly” in collusion with transportation officials. Dawi was also charged with defrauding several other oil companies and embezzling $16 million in loans from Kabul Bank by creating 17 front companies that never repaid them. 

Dawi’s lawyer, Najla Rahil, presented an exhaustive defense, arguing that the prosecution was biased and conspired with Dawi’s business competitors, and that the case was a contractual and civil dispute rather than a criminal matter. The Dawi Oil company, she argued, “preserved a bright history in our country” as Afghanistan emerged from years of conflict and isolation, virtually reviving its ruined aviation industry and investing where no one else would. 

“We rebuilt an airport that was destroyed after 30 years of war,” protested Dawi’s top lieutenant, Mohammad Asghar Ghiasi. 

The judges listened politely until every defendant and lawyer had spoken. When they returned from deliberating, they ordered both Dawi and Asghar to be imprisoned for nine years and pay multimillion-dollar fines. Asghar’s two daughters rushed over and hugged him, weeping. Dawi, struggling to keep his composure, turned and faced the courtroom wall.