Thursday, March 8, 2007

karzai's great govt': Afghan anti-corruption chief is ex-heroin trafficker -- what an example for the improvements there!

Afghan anti-corruption chief is ex-heroin trafficker
Mar 08, 2007 Associated Press

Izzatullah Wasifi nailed in Nevada hotel room in 1987 with 650-gram bag of cocaine

KABUL – When the deal went down in Las Vegas, the seller was introduced only as "Mr. E." In a room at Caesars Palace hotel, Mr. E exchanged a 650-gram bag of heroin for US$65,000 cash – unaware that the buyer was an undercover detective. The sting landed him in Nevada state prison for nearly four years.

Twenty years later and Mr. E, whose real name is Izzatullah Wasifi, has a new job. He is the government of Afghanistan's anti-corruption chief.

Wasifi leads a staff of 84 people charged with rooting out the endemic graft that is fuelled in part by the country's position as the world's largest producer of opium poppy, the raw ingredient of heroin.

President Hamid Karzai's office won't say if he knew about the drug conviction when Wasifi was appointed two months ago as general director of the General Independent Administration of Anti-Corruption and Bribery. Wasifi, a childhood friend of Karzai, is the son of a prominent Afghan nationalist leader.

An Associated Press review of criminal records in Nevada and California revealed that the 48-year-old Wasifi was arrested at Caesars Palace on July 15, 1987, for selling 650 grams of heroin. Prosecutors said the drugs were worth US$2 million on the street.

Wasifi served three years and eight months in prison before winning parole.

In an interview in his modest office at the anti-corruption bureau in Kabul, Wasifi confirmed to AP that he had been imprisoned in Nevada for a drug offence, although his account of events differed from the court records of his case.

He said he was arrested on the third day of his honeymoon. His then-wife, named in court records as Fereshteh Behbahani, bought cocaine for her own use in a bar of a Las Vegas hotel and brought it to their room where they were arrested, he said.

"My wife made an error," said Wasifi, looking dapper in a navy suit and waistcoat.

"A lot of people go to Las Vegas for fun and for snuff," he continued, pointing to his nostril and sniffing. "This thing happened."

In Los Angeles, Wasifi's ex-wife Behbahani, 50, who was sentenced to three years probation for conspiring to traffic drugs with Wasifi, declined to be interviewed.

Wasifi is the son of Azizullah Wasifi, a former agriculture minister and aide to former Afghan King Mohammed Zaher Shah. Wasifi said he grew up in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, with Karzai and has known the 49-year-old president since childhood. Both men studied in India at the same time.

Wasifi's family went into exile after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, first in Pakistan, then in the United States.

According to Wasifi, Karzai's elder brother, Qayyum, now an Afghan legislator, gave Wasifi his first job after he moved to the U.S. in 1983, working as a waiter at a hotel restaurant he ran in Maryland.

Wasifi remained politically active in the expatriate community during exile, as his father sought to bring different Afghan factions together under the leadership of the aging king. He returned to Afghanistan in 2001 after the U.S.-led ouster of the hardline Taliban regime.

Wasifi is adamant his drug conviction in the United States should not affect his ability to serve in government in Afghanistan, and compares his situation to U.S. President George W. Bush, who was once arrested in 1976 for drunk driving.

"Everybody through their lifetime has done something, fallen somewhere or done some mistake," said Wasifi, who wears a neat beard and moustache and gold-rimmed reading spectacles. "That's the only thing I can say about it."

He pointed to his record as governor of western Farah province, where opium production dropped 25 per cent during his 14-month tenure before he took his current position. Counternarcotics officials said the drop was mostly due to drought, but also due to poppy eradication campaigns led by Wasifi.

Afghanistan produces more than 90 per cent of the world's opium. The drop in Farah bucked an alarming countrywide trend that saw poppy cultivation rise 59 per cent between 2005 and 2006 to an all-time time high – producing enough for about 670 tonnes of heroin. UN officials warn that this year could see a record crop.

Officials who worked with Wasifi in Farah mostly commended his work. They said he promoted development, persuaded Iran to open a border crossing to increase trade and also got on well with U.S. forces who ran a provincial reconstruction base in the Afghan province.

In his new job, Wasifi is charged with tackling bribery and administrative corruption rather than pursuing counternarcotics cases. He is vowing to tackle graft "from the top down" and wants to place anti-graft investigators to monitor every ministry.

But allegations of corruption and immorality have swirled around Wasifi too. Such accusations are common in Afghan officialdom, where graft is endemic and many police and administrators profit from the US$3 billion narcotics trade.

He categorically denies any involvement. Anti-narcotics officials in Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity, say there is no evidence to prove that Wasifi is still involved in Afghanistan's booming heroin trade.

Wasifi's record as a convicted felon stands out in a country just starting to re-establish its justice system.

Karzai spokesman Khaleeq Ahmed said he could not immediately comment on whether or not the president had been aware of Wasifi's record when he appointed him.

But Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, say Wasifi's criminal record is known to UN officials and international donors and that Karzai is under pressure to replace him.

Wasifi, in the AP interview, warned that publicizing his drug conviction would only "sharpen the knives" of corrupt critics in government who wanted him out because of his threats to expose them.

"How many people do we see in this country who are killers, the biggest drug traffickers? They are ruining this administration, this regime," he said. "What about them?"