By Joseph Goldstein
KABUL, Afghanistan — Early this year, officials in Washington extolled a rare success in the fight against the drug trade in Afghanistan: The authorities there had imprisoned a leading opium trafficker on the United States’ kingpin list, Haji Lal Jan Ishaqzai.
The incarceration hinted at a newfound willingness by the Afghan authorities to prosecute criminals whose clout once made them untouchable. For those seeking evidence that the United States had not wasted hundreds of millions of dollars propping up Afghanistan’s criminal justice system, here was Exhibit A.
Then Mr. Ishaqzai bribed his way out of prison. He paid a lot — Afghan investigators suspect as much as $14 million, although people who know Mr. Ishaqzai say the figure was much lower. The cash went to a cross-section of people in the criminal justice system, according to Afghan and American officials.
Investigators say they are still trying to piece together what happened. But at its heart, the escape was fairly typical. For years, criminals and Taliban insurgents have been buying their way out of jail, for a fraction of what it cost Mr. Ishaqzai.
The number of people set free through corruption is difficult to track, in part because judges often cover up bribes by requiring a letter — real or forged — from local elders saying the prisoner about to be released will renounce criminality. This makes it difficult to prove whether the judge was moved by mercy or cash.
Still, there are times when the corruption becomes public. Days after a Taliban commander known as Fauji was released in October, he kidnapped the son and a cousin of the mayor of the community where he operated in Oruzgan Province. He demanded 1.8 million Pakistani rupees, or about $17,800, for ransom — exactly the amount he claimed to have paid in bribes. Wali Dad, the police chief for the district where Fauji operates, said that his officers had overheard Taliban fighters bragging on their radios about the number of corrupt officials they had paid off to release Fauji.Continue reading the main story
“He said he had spent 1.8 million rupees on getting out of prison,” said the mayor, Abdul Rahman, who negotiated with Fauji over the phone for the release of his son and cousin. “He wanted to charge me that amount.”
The ease with which criminals can buy their escape has remained a constant even as Afghanistan’s expanding criminal justice system and military lock up more criminals. “We detain approximately 150 people annually who have committed murder and other heinous crimes, and I can say half of them are set free through means of corruption,” said Gulab Khan, the top police investigator in Oruzgan Province.
For the new president, Ashraf Ghani, finding a way to quell corruption in the justice system is an urgent priority if he is to persuade Afghans to trust the national government. A 2010 survey by the United Nations found that more than half the adults who had come into contact with prosecutors, judges or the police said they had paid a bribe.
In recent years, American advisers helped the Afghans set up a separate police agency and court for drug dealers. The goal was to insulate narcotics prosecutions from the rampant corruption elsewhere. So far, American officials say, the approach appears to be working, although it is unclear whether it will have any long-term impact on drug trafficking here, which is soaring.
The agency, the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan, captured Mr. Ishaqzai after a shootout in 2012.
In the 1980s, Mr. Ishaqzai, 61, began buying and selling opium paste, and in the 1990s he built labs to refine the paste into heroin. When the Taliban was toppled in late 2001, Mr. Ishaqzai moved from Sangin, in Helmand Province, to Kandahar, the most important city in the south. There he found a protector in the regional strongman, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half brother of Hamid Karzai, then the president. Mr. Ishaqzai and his new ally lived on the same street and often played cards together.
Mr. Ishaqzai’s situation became precarious after Mr. Karzai was killed in 2011. That year President Obama added his name to a list of foreign drug kingpins. Then Mr. Ishaqzai was arrested by the counternarcotics police. While Mr. Ishaqzai was in custody, ministers sought his release but were rebuffed, a Western counternarcotics official said.
He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, prompting officials from the State and Justice Departments in Washington to cite the case as an encouraging sign. But Mr. Ishaqzai was already working toward his freedom. Investigators looking into his escape were stunned to learn that Mr. Ishaqzai’s release was arranged with the proper paperwork and the backing of judges. Officials said about 10 people — mostly judges, but also prison officials, a court clerk and others — are suspected of having a hand in releasing Mr. Ishaqzai.
In April, Mr. Ishaqzai was transferred out of the nation’s largest prison, in Kabul, to a smaller one in Kandahar on the order of the Supreme Court and the Interior Ministry. In June, two lower-ranking judges signed a release order for him.
The transfer and release orders occurred under provisions of the penal code that allow judges to exercise leniency under certain conditions, though the law was changed just days later.
“He was released with documents,” Zaidullah, an administrator at the Kandahar prison, said in a recent interview.
It took a week for the Afghan counternarcotics authorities in Kabul to learn that Mr. Ishaqzai had been freed. Eventually, he fled to Pakistan, beyond the reach of Afghan or American law enforcement. “We understand he is in Quetta,” said Gen. Baz Mohammad Ahmadi, the deputy interior minister for counternarcotics.
Among the many questions Afghan investigators are trying to sort out is exactly how much and whom Mr. Ishaqzai paid for his release. Zalmai Zabuli, an Afghan senator who has demanded a public accounting of the case, believes Mr. Ishaqzai paid about $10 million.
An Afghan counternarcotics official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of his job, said the authorities believed that one judge — who helped coordinate the various government officials involved in Mr. Ishaqzai’s release — had received a fee of $2 million, delivered to a close relative.
A few people have been arrested, including the court clerk who prepared the release order. The warden in Kandahar, Mohammad Akbar Zabuli, is under arrest and being held in Kabul. The two judges who signed the release order are under investigation by an internal judicial disciplinary body, officials said.
But it is unclear whether the investigation will stop there or threaten other Afghan officials.
The chief justice, Abdul Salam Azemi, was forced into retirement in October, and several Afghan officials say the Supreme Court was directly involved in Mr. Ishaqzai’s release.
The Afghan counternarcotics official said it was unlikely that Mr. Ishaqzai had bribed only low-level judges, such as the two currently under investigation. “Releasing a high-level drug dealer is not the work of a junior judge,” the official said.