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U.N. says corruption helps Afghan drug lords evade justice

KABUL (Reuters) - Corruption in Afghanistan is hobbling efforts to combat the booming opium trade with powerful drug lords evading justice by simply making a telephone call to friends in high places, a United Nations official said on Monday.

Opium production in Afghanistan has risen every year since U.S. and Afghan forces ended Taliban rule in 2001, despite millions of dollars spent on trying to eradicate crops, encourage farmers to plant something else and arrest traffickers.

“We talk about those who are not behind bars, but who should be,” the head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Afghanistan, Christina Oguz, told a news conference. “They are the people who have committed crimes of corruption or who are the brains and profiteers behind trafficking networks.

“They are people with power and people with powerful friends who can use their mobile phones to release a suspect from detention without a fair trial,” she said.

The U.S. government’s former point man in the fight against the heroin trade in Afghanistan accused Afghan President Hamid Karzai in an article published on Sunday of obstructing counter-narcotics efforts and protecting drug lords.

Karzai strongly denies the charge.

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Afghanistan produced some 93 percent of the world’s supply of opium last year, most of which is processed to make highly addictive heroin and exported abroad.

The crop is worth some $3 billion a year to the Afghan economy, locking the country into a vicious circle where drug money helps fund the Taliban insurgency, fuels official corruption, both of which weaken government control over parts of the country which are then free to produce more opium.

“It is very dangerous for any society if people believe strongly ... the government is corrupt,” said Oguz. “Even if it is not true it is very very dangerous for society because it indicates there is no trust in the government ... I would think the best thing for the government would be to really investigate these allegations.”

At a June conference in Paris, the Afghan government made a strong commitment to fight corruption in return for pledges of some $20 billion in aid from international donors.

“What we are waiting for is decisive action to follow up on those words, but at least it’s a start,” Oguz said.

There was some evidence that a measure of success in stopping industrial chemicals used to process opium into heroin entering Afghanistan had led to something of a shortage, Oguz said.

The chemicals, used to make paint and pharmaceuticals, are legally exported from producer nations in Europe, China, Russia and South Korea to neighbouring countries, but then some are diverted and illegally smuggled to Afghanistan.

Most of the chemicals reach Afghanistan from Pakistan, but significant quantities came also from Iran, the UNODC said.

Editing by Sanjeev Miglani