Boston Globe, July 4, 2009
Karzai's pardons nullify drug court gains
Well-known traffickers set free ahead of election
By Farah Stockman
When five drug traffickers in military uniforms were caught transporting heroin in a police truck in 2007, it was a victory for a dogged team of Afghan investigators and their US mentors who are waging a Quixotic battle against narcotics, the nation's largest industry.
The men were prosecuted by a special drug court that the US government has spent tens of millions of dollars developing as a bulwark against corruption. They were sentenced to between 16 and 18 years in prison.
But in April, Afghan president Hamid Karzai pardoned the five men. One was the nephew of a powerful politician managing Karzai's reelection campaign, and the presidential decree ordering their release notes that they had ties to a well-respected family, according to a senior Afghan official.
But five others who were pardoned just two days later were not small-time dealers. According to Sareer Ahmad Barmak, spokesman for the Criminal Justice Task Force, the five arrested in a border police truck had more than 120 kilograms of heroin - a cache with a potential street value of more than $3 million in the United States. One of the men was Bilal Wali Mohammad, nephew to Haji Din Mohammad, a powerful tribal leader who resigned his post as Kabul governor to become Karzai's campaign manager. Bilal worked as the personal secretary for his cousin, Haji Zahir, commander of the border police in Takhar, a province that borders Tajikistan and serves as a conduit for drugs to Europe.
Boston Globe, Jul. 4, 2009
Those pardons - and at least five others in recent weeks - have outraged US officials working to combat drug trafficking in Afghanistan, the world's biggest supplier of heroin and opium, and raised fears that Karzai will set more traffickers free in a bid to curry favor with influential families before the presidential election on Aug. 20.
“Karzai is pulling out all the stops in his bid to get reelected,'' said Jake Sherman, a former UN official in Afghanistan who is now at New York University's Center on International Cooperation.
Drug traffickers were once excluded from seeking release under Afghanistan's system of presidential pardons, which sets free more than 800 of the country's 14,000 prisoners annually, according to Aziz Ahmad Sarbaz, the attorney general's director of monitoring of detention centers.
Since Karzai began pardoning drug traffickers in April, he has so far ordered the release of at least 10, although records at the attorney general's office suggest that the total figure is almost certainly far higher.
Last week, US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry brought up pointed questions about the pardons when he toured the new, $11 million Criminal Justice Task Force facility that the United States has built on the outskirts of Kabul, which houses prosecutors, two tribunals, an investigation unit, and a jail behind heavily fortified walls.
Eikenberry has also taken up the issue with Karzai himself, and with Afghanistan's attorney general and minister of justice, US officials said.
“We find it very discouraging and upsetting, and we think it probably upsets the people of Afghanistan as well,'' said Eikenberry's deputy, Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., according to an embassy spokesman.
It is a tradition in Afghanistan to release prisoners during national and religious holidays. The system - which receives recommendations for pardons from the attorney general, the justice minister, and other officials, including from committees in each of Afghanistan's 34 provinces - is designed to ease overcrowding and show mercy towards juveniles, the elderly, and people who have already served most of their sentences for petty crimes, said Sarbaz, who coordinates the release of the pardoned inmates.
Sarbaz said 210 people were pardoned on April 28, “Mujahadeen Victory Day,'' which commemorates the 1992 collapse of the Soviet-backed government at the hands of Afghan fighters.
Lists of those pardoned in seven provinces show that the majority had been imprisoned for traffic accidents, robberies, and “cheating.'' But five of the 42 were drug traffickers: two in Faryab Province, two in Kandahar, and one in Baghlan. Records pertaining to the remaining 27 provinces were not available, suggesting that the total number of pardoned traffickers is far higher.
Sarbaz said the pardoned traffickers were low-level figures who had small amounts of drugs.
“These are poor people, and we know that their sentences can be very harsh,'' he said.
But five others who were pardoned just two days later were not small-time dealers.
According to Sareer Ahmad Barmak, spokesman for the Criminal Justice Task Force, the five arrested in a border police truck had more than 120 kilograms of heroin - a cache with a potential street value of more than $3 million in the United States.
One of the men was Bilal Wali Mohammad, nephew to Haji Din Mohammad, a powerful tribal leader who resigned his post as Kabul governor to become Karzai's campaign manager.
Bilal worked as the personal secretary for his cousin, Haji Zahir, commander of the border police in Takhar, a province that borders Tajikistan and serves as a conduit for drugs to Europe.
Bilal and Zahir's family connections made them exactly the kind of untouchable target that the Task Force was designed to apprehend, since leading dealers are often tied to powerful families. Zahir's father had been Karzai's vice president until his assassination in 2002. Another uncle was a famous Afghan commander who fought the Soviets and was executed by the Taliban.
Zahir has been on the US radar for years, officials say.
In 2006 he was fired from his border post due to corruption, but refused to leave, according to a State Department Human Rights report.
“The Ministry of Interior stopped salary payment to the officers operating under Zahir,'' the report states. “However, Zahir continued to pay their salaries and funded over 1,000 additional officers, essentially forming a private militia, reportedly from his own funds.''
A year later came the arrest of five of Zahir's employees in a border police truck at a routine vehicle checkpoint outside Kabul.
In addition to Bilal, the four other men included Zahir's personal bodyguard, according to Afghan officials and a US State Department report.
The arrest was big enough to be noted by ABC News, which said US anti-narcotics forces and Afghan police were hunting for Zahir.
He was never apprehended, but was finally suspended from his border commander job, according to a report by the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
The case was bittersweet for the Task Force: the leader, Zahir, escaped, but his underlings were nabbed, an important success in a country where powerful ties all too often mean total immunity.
But on April 30, Zahir's men were pardoned “out of respect'' for their well-known family, according to an Afghan official who read the presidential decree to a Boston Globe reporter.
Haji Din Mohammad did not return a phone call seeking comment. Karzai's spokesman referred questions to another spokesman, who passed the question to a third spokesman who did not pick up the phone.
Last fall, news that Karzai pardoned men who had gang-raped a woman created a stir in the international press. But so far, news of the drug trafficker pardons does not appear to be widely known.
Behind the bramble of razor wire, employees of the Criminal Justice Task Force refrain from openly criticizing the decree that undid in a minute what they had worked so many months for.
“Karzai, according to the Constitution of Afghanistan, has the right to forgive someone in prison,'' said Ahmad Qaderi, director of prosecution at the Criminal Justice Task Force. “We don't have anything to do with this.''
In this gleaming, state-of-the-art oasis of justice, life goes on. Senior American attorneys from the Justice Department mentor 36 investigators and a gaggle of prosecutors. Judges take polygraph tests to detect corruption. A sophisticated security system - installed after last year's murder of a drug court judge - protects the staff. A 56-bed jail inside the compound ensures that suspects won't mysteriously vanish in someone else's custody.
Abdul Jamil, deputy investigator who has a master's degree from Kabul Police Academy, says he is proud of the Task Force's professionalism. In his 32 years as a police officer, he has faced blackmail and death threats, but he says he is still determined to build the rule of law here.
“We are ready to fight against drug traffickers and will fight them in the future,'' he said.
Yet, he acknowledged that once a convict leaves the compound, there is no way to ensure they will serve out their term.
“Whenever a drug trafficker is convicted here, they go to Pol-e-Charki prison,'' he said. “They have their own rules there.
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