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Afghanistan: Land-Grab Scandal In Kabul Rocks The Government

A United Nations housing expert is calling for the removal of Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim and other senior Afghan officials implicated in a scandal over the seizure of real estate in Kabul. But some of the accused officials say they have not done anything illegal.

Prague, 16 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The recent bulldozing of houses in a Kabul neighborhood to build private homes for senior Afghan officials is growing into an embarrassing scandal for the UN-backed Afghan Transitional Authority.

About 20 families in the Sherpur District of the Afghan capital -- an exclusive neighborhood close to the city center -- have been forced to leave the mud-brick houses they had built in the area over the last two decades.

A critical report by a nongovernmental organization, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, has named 29 senior officials and other powerful Afghan personalities who received plots of land in Sherpur for nominal fees. Included on the list are six cabinet ministers, the mayor of Kabul, the governor of the Afghan National Bank, and two former militia commanders.

Among the most prominent names on the list are Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Education Minister Yunis Qanooni. Both are leaders within Jamiat-i-Islami, the political wing of a former Northern Alliance faction. Jamiat-i-Islami seized de facto control of Kabul after the Taliban regime fled the city but before the International Security Assistance Force was deployed there.

The legitimacy of the NGO report has been strengthened by a separate report by Miloon Kothari, a United Nations special rapporteur on housing and land rights, who recently spent several weeks in Kabul. The report by Kothari accuses Fahim -- and other senior cabinet members -- of active collusion in official land seizures.

Kothari says those involved should be removed: "Fahim, the minister of defense, is directly involved in this kind of occupation and dispossession. And ministers that are directly involved have to be removed."

Fahim has not commented publicly on the accusations or the calls for his removal.

Spurred by the media attention the two critical reports have received, Afghan Transitional Authority Chairman Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Jawad Luddin, yesterday announced that an official investigation is being launched.

"The presidential office has appointed a commission to investigate the housing problem in Sherpur where houses of people were destroyed," he said.

Privately, Karzai is reported to be infuriated about the scandal.

Afghan Reconstruction Minister Mohammad Amin Farhang, who is not among the cabinet ministers listed as taking land in Sherpur, told RFE/RL that Karzai only became aware of the issue last week.

"There was a discussion on this issue last week in the cabinet," he said. "The president asked all individuals who had taken land in Sherpur. [Karzai] didn't know about the Sherpur issue until that meeting. As far as I can remember, no more than five [senior cabinet ministers] were among those who had not taken land."

Karzai's aides have made statements promising that the government's investigation will not gloss over the criticisms made by the NGO and the United Nations.

But Farhang suggests strong measures be taken to save the credibility of the post-Taliban Afghan central government: "The government should take back all this land that was distributed to those [officials] and redistribute it to those who are entitled to it, regardless of whether they are ordinary citizens or government officials in the cabinet. This [taking of land] is against the law, and I reject it."

Two of the officials named in the report by the human rights group say they have done nothing illegal.

Education Minister Qanooni, who headed the Interior Ministry until last year's Loya Jirga, suggested that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission is being misused by individuals who are spreading what he called "propaganda" aimed at undermining political figures in the country.

"There is a difference between those who are given land by the current rulers under current laws and those who take land by force in Sherpur," Qanooni said. "I was also given land there."

Qanooni said the land had been legally transferred to him on Karzai's orders.

But Kabul's deputy mayor, Habibullah Asghary, who also is among those who received land in Sherpur for a nominal fee, told RFE/RL in May of this year that it was the Defense Ministry that decided which officials and former militia commanders would receive land in Sherpur.

"The land in Sherpur belongs to the Afghan Defense Ministry," Asghary said. "According to the ownership law in Afghanistan, every government institution has the right to do with its land whatever it wants. The Defense Ministry distributed the land to its commanders and high-ranking officials who defended our country and freedom."

Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy to Afghanistan, has told journalists he has "absolutely no disagreement" with the substance of the report made by Kothari, the UN special rapporteur. Brahimi told "The Washington Post" newspaper that the destruction of the houses in Sherpur is "totally unacceptable."

Some of the Afghans whose houses were recently bulldozed in Sherpur told "The Washington Post" that they were beaten by Afghan police when they refused to leave.