Afghan's new anti-graft court hears first cases in Kabul

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s new anti-corruption court heard its first cases on Saturday, a small step forward in President Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to combat graft at the highest levels of government.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, signs a peace agreement with Hizb-i-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, in Kabul, Afghanistan September 29, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

The Anti-Corruption Criminal Justice Centre was created by Ghani’s administration in June to bolster the legal system’s ability to tackle corrupt ministers, judges and governors, who have largely been immune from prosecution.

The first two cases heard by the court, which included a female judge, did not involve top government officials but a Supreme Court prosecutor and a private bank official - a fact highlighted by defense lawyers.

“I wish the start of this court was by a million dollar corruption case, not by a 50,000 afghani ($761.04) corruption case,” Farid Arabzai, a lawyer representing the prosecutor, told the three-judge panel at the Kabul court hearing.

The government has said it would pursue dozens of cases of corruption involving senior government officials, but has not provided any names.

“There are more cases under investigation at this center and as soon as the investigation of those cases is over the ACJC will announce its decision,” said Jamshid Rasouli, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, on the sidelines of the small courtroom packed with media, civil society organizations and diplomats.

Ghani is under pressure to step up the fight against endemic corruption as international donors demand more results in return for billions of dollars in foreign aid.

Michael Hartmann, chief of the rule of law unit at the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, welcomed the start of the court hearings, saying it showed that Kabul’s anti-graft fight was a top priority.

Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranked 166th out of 168 nations by watchdog group Transparency International. U.S. officials say the problem undermines its fight against the Taliban.

U.S. senators in September warned that failure to address corruption could lead Washington to rethink its annual spending of around $5 billion per year in Afghanistan.

Ghani has taken steps including addressing financial wrongdoing, cancelling suspicious fuel contracts and firing corrupt civil servants.

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