Afghan police take first, faltering steps in fight against corruption

HERAT, Afghanistan Thu Apr 25, 2013 5:19pm EDT

1 of 3. Police officers from anti-corruption Shafafiyat unit work on documents at their office in Kabul, April 23, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Omar Sobhani

HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghanistan's security forces are routinely accused of murder, rape and corruption on a grand scale, but a new anti-corruption police unit's sole conviction last year was a junior policeman who forged some documents, the head of the unit told Reuters.

Abuses by the 152,000-strong Afghan police have pushed whole districts into the arms of the Taliban, officials say. Now international forces hope the Shafafiyat - Dari for transparency - anti-corruption unit will crack down on corrupt police.

For most of President Hamid Karzai's 11-year reign, there has been little interest in anti-corruption in the army or police. The country's two most powerful institutions receive billions of dollars from donors annually but struggle just to recruit and maintain a force bled by high rates of desertion.

Rampant graft in one of the world's poorest and most corrupt nations has long been a major irritant for Western backers whose aid has propped up the Afghan economy for more than a decade.

At the U.S.-funded Dawood military hospital in Kabul, wounded soldiers and police suffered from gangrene and maggots, starved and died in filthy corridors. U.S. lawmakers said $43 million for medicine, food and equipment had gone missing.

That's the type of case the Afghan-run anti-corruption units should investigate. The police unit was set up a year ago, with the military planning to follow suit this spring.

Since then, hundreds of police accused of abuse have been fired, transferred or given punishments like cleaning toilets. But the Shafafiyat police unit was stumped when asked about successful prosecutions.

"We have done good work but we are not satisfied. We need to do more," said Major General Abdul Massoud Rageb, the burly, grey-bearded head of the unit.

He said the unit by itself had secured one conviction resulting in a jail term. Records show Mohammed Daud was sentenced in February to a year in jail for forging vehicle documents in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

LAUGH OR CRY?

Shafafiyat was also part of an investigation into the ex-governor of eastern Nuristan province and provincial police officials who stole half a million dollars earmarked for police salaries. The Taliban seized three districts from unpaid police who deserted their posts, said the Attorney General's office.

Last year, the provincial police officials were sentenced to between six and 10 years in jail. The governor, who stole the lion's share of the cash, got two months in jail.

"We didn't know whether to laugh or cry at this sentence," said Lieutenant General Ghulam Ranjbar, who oversees military and police corruption cases at the Attorney General's office.

A Shafafiyat official showed Reuters a large binder of documents on the case and said Shafafiyat led the investigation. But Ranjbar said Shafafiyat did not have a lead role. Rageb did not mention the case until prompted.

Those two cases are the only ones Shafafiyat can positively say ended in jail terms, highlighting a key problem: the unit seems unable to track complaints properly, hindering analysis of their performance.

Rageb said Shafafiyat received 1,758 complaints last year, but his deputy put that at 1,024. A NATO counterpart said there were around 1,600 in one province alone - and there are 34 provinces in Afghanistan.

Out of those cases, 44 were referred for prosecution and entered into a black binder that sits among the framed photographs in Rageb's office. Shafafiyat stop tracking a case once they refer it to prosecutors. They found out about the Nuristan sentences from the newspaper.

"We don't really get any feedback," said Rageb's deputy, Colonel Mubien Rahimi ruefully.

THOUSANDS OF CASES, NO BUDGET

There's plenty to investigate - 5,424 policemen were accused of crimes ranging from desertion to murder and rape last year, the Attorney General's office said. Several officials there said they did not even know about Shafafiyat.

No one knows how many police have been convicted. Shafafiyat referred Reuters to the Attorney General's office, who referred to the Ministry of Interior, who referred to the Supreme Court, who asked Reuters for a written request. They did not reply.

Problems stretch beyond case tracking. When Shafafiyat officers travel, they are housed and protected by the police they are investigating.

Investigators often get death threats. There's also little to no protection for witnesses, informants, judges, lawyers, or members of civil society working alongside Shafafiyat.

"We do face pressure in some cases," Rageb acknowledged, declining to give examples.

Shafafiyat has no dedicated budget of its own. Salaries are paid by the international donors bankrolling the entire police force. The United Nations donated equipment and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), anxious to improve police performance ahead of the 2014 drawdown of foreign troops, helps Shafafiyat with transport and logistics.

But when ISAF flew Shafafiyat and anti-corruption campaigners to the western town of Herat this month, ISAF officers could not get clearance to leave base and attend the meeting in the police headquarters.

Five members of civil society groups meant to provide civilian oversight were also on the trip. None could name a complaint that Shafafiyat had solved, and most seemed unaware how complaints were recorded or investigated.

"We are just here to support the process," said Gul Maky Siawash of the Afghan Women's Coalition for Fighting Corruption.

When asked about the Shafafiyat police unit's greatest achievement so far, Brigadier General Flemming Agerskov, Rageb's ISAF counterpart, said they had investigated some serious rape allegations. Human rights groups say police often use young boys as sex slaves or rape women at roadblocks.

ISAF doesn't track individual cases because they are encouraging Afghans to do it themselves, Agerskov said. The Ministry of Interior plans to put a case tracking system into place, he said, but it was unclear when.

Rahimi and his colleagues said they spent six months tracking down an alleged police rapist last year. By the time they found him, the man had been shot, possibly by the victim's family. They could name no other cases and had no statistics on the number of rape complaints received.

"I don't know of any policeman who has been jailed for rape. It's part of a broader pattern of impunity for the security forces in Afghanistan," said Heather Barr, the head of Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan.

"I interviewed one woman who had gone to police to report a rape and was raped again by the head of that police station."

The woman had not lodged a complaint with Shafafiyat.

(Editing by Paul Tait)