KABUL, Afghanistan — A major investigation into an influential Afghan governor accused of taking bribes has been shut down and its top prosecutor transferred to a unit that doesn't handle corruption cases, Afghan and U.S. officials said.
The closing of the investigation into the former governor of Kapisa province, Ghulam Qawis Abu Bakr, comes on the heels of a grim, unpublicized assessment by U.S. officials that no substantive corruption prosecutions were taking place in Afghanistan despite President Hamid Karzai's pledge to root out graft.
The Abu Bakr investigation raises troubling questions yet again about how much U.S. taxpayer money is lining the pockets of powerful Afghan officials, and whether the U.S. is doing all it can to persuade Karzai to crack down on corruption. It also suggests that the lax prosecution of corruption has pervaded all levels of government.
U.S. officials had hoped the case would be the first conviction of a relatively significant person in Afghan government. While most of Abu Bakr's influence is in Kapisa province, he is also connected to the Hizb-e-Islami political party, which the government has been trying to court in hopes of getting the group to cut its ties with militants.
Abu Bakr was suspended as governor after CIA Director David Petraeus, then the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, presented Karzai with documentation showing that he was colluding with the Taliban, according to an Afghan official in Kabul with direct knowledge of the incident.
In the two years since Karzai unveiled a new anti-corruption task force, powerful government figures have been accused of corruption and even investigated, but seldom brought to court. It appears that Abu Bakr will be no exception.
Most of the approximately 2,000 cases investigated by the anti-corruption unit since its birth in 2009 have stalled, said a NATO official familiar with the unit, who spoke anonymously to discuss sensitive matters. The 28 convictions so far have all been of minor players. The attorney general's office has been infiltrated by power brokers, ranging from lawmakers to warlords, who are systematically blocking cases, the NATO official said.
In general, little has come of Karzai's promises after a fraud-marred 2009 election that he would make rooting out graft a priority. In fact, a corruption scandal in the interim involving the country's largest private bank has incriminated a number of Karzai allies, including relatives.
The first evidence that corruption was not being taken seriously in the attorney general's office came in the summer of 2010, when a Karzai aide was arrested on charges of accepting a car in exchange for his help in thwarting a corruption case. Karzai ordered the release of the aide, Mohammad Zia Salehi.
Because of the onslaught of negative publicity, Attorney General Mohammed Ishaq Aloko ordered his prosecutors not to discuss details of their cases with the U.S. officials advising them, saying that if they did, they would be considered U.S. spies, said an Afghan official who worked in the anti-corruption unit.
Both the attorney general and Abu Bakr declined to comment. The current head of the anti-corruption unit at the attorney general's office said the case was ongoing.
"The case against Gov. Ghulam Qawis Abu Bakr has not closed. Our unit is still working on that case. They are trying to collect evidence and complete the case and get it ready to send it to the courts," said Gen. Abu Baker Rafiyee. "When the case will go to court is not clear. It will be whenever it is ready for the court."
Several months ago, U.S. Embassy personnel in Kabul concluded no substantive corruption prosecutions were taking place in Afghanistan, according to a former senior U.S. familiar with the briefing – which occurred before the Abu Bakr case was halted. The former official was told during the briefing the drive to crack down on graft by the Afghan government had come to a halt more than a year ago.
Current and former U.S. officials said the American administration was trying to downplay their anti-corruption work in its Afghanistan policy because it was such a failure.
The case against Abu Bakr opened last year after allegations surface d he had received a $200,000 bribe in exchange for the contract to build a cell tower, an Afghan official said.
Abu Bakr lives in Mahmud-i-Raqi, the capital of Kapisa province, in a large house. He has three other houses in Kabul, all built, according to the original witness statements, with stone and gravel paid for by foreign donations intended for roads, schools and clinics.
About 20 witnesses said the governor forced local construction companies to give him truckloads of gravel and stone for his expensive homes, according to the officials. The witnesses reportedly said the governor threatened to halt their construction projects if he didn't get what he wanted.
However, when prosecutors traveled to Kapisa in late June to get more evidence, the witnesses were no longer willing to cooperate.
"They changed their story," the Afghan official said. Prosecutors also met with Abu Bakr, who denied everything.
Only one witness was still willing to testify, a man named Shah Agha who said Abu Bakr shut down his rock-crushing plant after he refused to donate 100 trucks of gravel – worth about $10,500 – for the construction of one of his houses. Agha said within an hour of giving his statement in Kabul, his phone started ringing.
"It was people, friends, asking me why I had talked against Abu Bakr," Agha told the AP. He said his testimony could only have gotten out so quickly if someone inside the attorney general's office was tipping people off.
Four months ago, the Abu Bakr case was abruptly closed, despite pleas from the prosecutor for more time to gather evidence, according to officials. In July, the top prosecutor was demoted, and sent to oversee conditions in Afghan prisons, according to an Afghan government document obtained by The Associated Press. Her pay was cut by $50 a month, or about a fourth of her monthly salary.
At least three prosecutors who have persisted in sensitive investigations – two of them involving Abu Bakr – have been removed or transferred, either to other departments or to remote provinces, according to a senior U.S. official.
Almost everyone in the Abu Bakr case would only speak anonymously, especially in Mahmud-i-Raqi, for fear of recrimination and of angering a man still considered more powerful than the current governor. One provincial official described speaking to construction companies who acknowledged paying off Abu Bakr in exchange for contracts, including one that involved U.S. funds to pave a road. The official said Abu Bakr demanded the company raise the price of its bid to include a $150,000 kickback.
Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah contributed to this report from Kabul. Desmond Butler contributed from Washington.