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Airing Of Dirty Laundry Raises Afghan Hopes That Corruption Will Be Tackled

Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal
The very public trading of graft accusations in Afghanistan's parliament this week has all of Kabul talking.

It has turned the country's finance minister into an instant hero but also kindled hopes that the issue of corruption will finally be addressed in a more serious manner.

Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal became an overnight sensation, when, facing potential impeachment, he turned the tables on lawmakers by publicly naming and shaming deputies allegedly involved in corrupt practices.

Zakhilwal's detailed accusations shed a spotlight on the world of graft and influence peddling that has come to be associated with men of power in Afghanistan but is rarely discussed in public.

Speaking to a stormy session of the lower house of Afghan parliament, the Olasi Jirga, on May 13, Zakhilwal accused leading deputies of profiting to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars by evading duties on everything from flour to car imports. He also accused some lawmakers of importing illegal crates of alcohol from foreign travels and pressuring him to appoint relatives to lucrative posts in the customs department.

Amid applause and cheering, Zakhilwal accused Mohammad Naeem Lalai Hameedzai, a deputy from the southern province of Kandahar, of pressuring him to allow the illegal import of nearly 2,000 cars.

Taking Down Names

As Hameedzai shouted insults, Zakhilwal dropped another bombshell by accusing him of forcing alcohol shipments through airport customs. Alcohol is illegal in the conservative Islamic nation.

"Every time this respected lawmaker has traveled abroad on an official passport, he has forced a stash of alcohol through customs," Zakhilwal said. "I can show you the proof. Yesterday he personally called one of my customs officials and threatened him with murder unless he allowed the illegal alcohol through customs."

Zakhilwal further embarrassed lawmakers Samilullah Sameem, Arif Rehmani, and Mohammad Azim Mohseni, accusing them of pressuring him to release illegal shipments of fuel and alcohol.

He claimed that another parliamentarian, Mehmud Khan Sulaimankhel, offered large sums of cash to his deputies to get his son appointed as the head of the customs department on a busy border crossing into southeastern Afghanistan.

Zakhilwal's most daring move, perhaps, was to accuse a powerful lawmaker from eastern Afghanistan of being involved in large-scale smuggling of flour from neighboring Pakistan.

Zakhilwal told lawmakers that Haji Zahir Qadeer's shadowy business interests in flour, a staple food in the country, ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

He accused Qadeer of having evaded millions of dollars in custom duties for years.

"Some 4,583 truckloads of flour were smuggled over the past few years," Zakhilwal said. "We estimate the value of the smuggled flour to be $269 million. This caused us a loss of more than $7 million in revenues. Now, according to the law, we need to recover all of the $269 million because customs duties were evaded."

Moving On

The accusation attracted an angry rebuttal from Qadeer. Speaking to lawmakers on May 15, he accused Zakhilwal of engaging in a vendetta against the parliamentarians who had pushed for his removal.

"If he had known about alleged practices since 2010, then he is also involved in committing such crimes," Qadeer said. "The finance minister should have been languishing in prison along with being impeached."

Qadeer also said that with a fortune of some $370 million, he had no need to evade import duties.

Despite the denials by lawmakers, media coverage and public sympathies in the wake of the exchanges have overwhelmingly sided with Zakhilwal. He easily survived the impeachment vote.

More importantly, says Abdul Satar Saadat, a Kabul-based legal-affairs analyst, the confrontation has made Zakhilwal a hero among ordinary Afghans whose daily lives are hounded by official corruption. It also raised some hope that the issue may finally be tackled.

Saadat says it's all a good omen for the fight against graft in Afghanistan, which is consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt nations worldwide. According to Transparency International's 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, the country came in 174th place, sharing last place in the survey with North Korea and Somalia.

"If we have more revelations like these, it will undermine trust and break bonds among those engaging in corruption," Saadat says. "Furthermore, if these allegations are followed up in a rigorous judicial process to punish the real culprits, it will break the chain of corruption in this country."

Even if that rosy scenario doesn't come to pass, Saadat believes this week's episode will push both lawmakers and cabinet members to be more cautious before engaging in future illegal deals.

"Ultimately, it will contribute towards reforming the political system," he says.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.