The Times, February 23, 2008

Wanted for empty prison: some convicted Afghan drug barons

Last year, a man sentenced to death for kidnapping an Italian aid worker escaped while being transferred from Pol-i-Charki's old wing to the execution ground.

Jeremy Page in Kabul

On the outskirts of Kabul stands probably the nicest prison wing between Warsaw and Tokyo — complete with security cameras, electronic locks, shaded visiting areas and UN-approved levels of natural light.

Opium in Afghanistan
The four largest players in the heroin business are all senior members of the Afghan government – the government that our soldiers are fighting and dying to protect.
The Mail, July 21, 2007

Built by the United Nations with mostly British money, the “secure wing” of Kabul's Pol-i-Charki prison was designed to hold 96 of the top Afghan drug barons whose business helps to fund a Taliban insurgency.

The idea was that it would be impossible for them to escape.

But 18 months after it opened, the problem is getting anyone inside. British and UN officials have told The Times that the wing, built by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), with British funding of £1.1 million, stands empty. The reason, they say, is that it is not yet finished — although it was nearing completion when The Times visited in April 2006 and was declared open later that year.

Antonio Maria Costa, the UNODC chief, said in September 2006: “It has 100 beds. We want these beds to be taken up in the next few months.”

The problem now appears to be that the UN insisted on the highest Western standards without appreciating that the elecricity grid could not provide a stable power supply to heat the place and run the cameras, locks and gates. Christina Oguz, UNODC's Afghanistan representative, said: “It would have been irresponsible to hand over the secure wing of the prison to the Ministry of Justice before it was functional. We very much regret the delay.”

The wing is now due to be handed over on April 1 — complete with its own generators. But even if it is, Afghan authorities have yet to arrest, and let alone convict, any of the “high-value” targets for whom it was built, according to British officials.

“High-value” targets are the ringleaders of the 30 large networks thought to run the drugs trade in Afghanistan, which produces 90 per cent of the world's illegal opium.

The empty prison wing is a telling symbol of the international community's failure to curb Afghanistan's drugs industry, which is expected to earn the Taliban about £50 million this year.

The UNODC predicted this month that Afghanistan's opium production would drop only slightly this year, after a 34 per cent rise last year, and would increase in the insurgency-racked south.

Afghan officials blame the international community for not providing security and economic alternatives — and for wasting money on things such as a world-class prison. General Abdullah Azizi, of the Justice Ministry's prison department, told The Times: “We could make four or five prisons for that money, but it was the UNODC's decision. We don't know why.” He said Afghanistan's 35 prisons were so overcrowded that the ministry rented ten houses to use as jails.

Western officials, however, say a big part of the problem is corruption in the Afghan police, judicial and prison systems, which allows many drug traffickers and Taliban fighters to buy their freedom.

The IMF says opium production has risen by 4,000 percent since 2001 and earns Afghan farmers about $1 billion a year. An estimated 93 percent of the world's heroin, made from opium, comes from Afghanistan. Analysts say the Taliban insurgency derives much of its revenue from the illegal opium trade.
VOA, Feb.20, 2008

One official said: “It's reached a point where the police, rather than providing security, are seen as a major security threat. People are just paying their way out of jail.”

Mullah Naqibullah, a senior Taliban commander, boasted last month that he had escaped custody for the third time in three years after paying a bribe of $15,000 (£7,600) to Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security. Lower-level Taliban fighters say they have bought their freedom for as little as $1,000 each. Last year, a man sentenced to death for kidnapping an Italian aid worker escaped while being transferred from Pol-i-Charki's old wing to the execution ground.

British officials say the picture is not as bleak as the empty prison suggests. They point to the success of two British-funded outfits — the 1,700-strong Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan and the Criminal Justice Task Force (CJTF), which includes investigators, prosecutors and judges.

Last year the CJTF processed 331 cases, convicting 278 people and acquitting 102. Among those convicted were five border police sentenced to 16-18 years each in October for transporting 123kg (270lb) of pure crystal heroin in an official vehicle.

“I don't want to sound victorious but we're starting to get there,” said one counter-narcotics official. “We're seeing more medium-value targets picked up.” “Medium-value” targets are the ringleaders' lieutenants while “low-value” targets are the “mules” who transport the drugs.

The problem, though, is that the few who are convicted are still being housed in Afghanistan's ordinary prisons, whose population has swollen from 600 in 2001 to 10,400 last year. “The older and more crowded the prisons are, obviously the higher the risk of a security breach,” said one official involved in the new wing.

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