Fri, Aug 03, 2012 - Page 4 News List

Afghan finance minister faces graft investigation

SHADY BUSINESS?The minister earns just US$2,000 a month, but recently bought a US$160,000 car. He says he earned US$1m that he transferred through consulting

Reuters, KABUL

Afghanistan’s top anti-corruption chief said yesterday the finance minister’s business affairs would be investigated after accusations aired on Afghan TV that he stashed away more than US$1 million in overseas banks.

Afghan Finance Minister Hazarat Omar Zakhilwal, championed by international donors for his integrity in a country mired in graft, over the past five years had transferred the money to accounts in Canada, according to Afghanistan’s largest commercial TV channel, Tolo TV.

Tolo showed what it said were his private bank statements on one of its programs. Zakhilwal, in an interview with the station late on Wednesday, denied any wrongdoing and said there was nothing untoward in the transfers, which were the result of legitimate work and business interests before entering government.

“Before I came back to Afghanistan, I was a lecturer of economics in Canada and [as a consultant] I had good sources of income too, worth US$1,500 per day,” Zakhilwal, also President Hamid Karzai’s top economics adviser, told Tolo.

Zakhilwal, who moved back to Afghanistan from Canada, became finance minister in February 2009 and was former head of the country’s investment support agency. He has also been a consultant to the World Bank and UN.

Afghan High Office of Oversight and Anti-corruption Chairman Azizullah Ludin said that he was not convinced by the denials and an investigation would begin into Zakhilwal’s business affairs tomorrow.

The team looking into the transfers would include officials from Ludin’s office, as well as intelligence officials from the National Directorate of Security and the Attorney-General’s office.

“The minister of finance says this money is from his business, but I asked him ‘what sort of business do you have?’” Ludin said. “We will investigate this seriously.”

Afghanistan is regularly ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, with more than US$16 billion pledged in future aid at an international donor’s conference in Tokyo tied to a serious effort to crack down on graft.

Afghanistan’s Western backers have repeatedly called for more action to counter rampant skimming and kickbacks paid from the more than US$50 billion in reconstruction money that has flooded into the country since 2001.

Karzai last month issued a decree ordering all ministries to take steps to cut down on nepotism and corruption, while directing the Afghan Supreme Court to accelerate investigations already under way.

The directive, while less than Western backers had hoped, also pointed to a growing realization within the government that corruption must be addressed and senior figures prosecuted, diplomats said.

Ludin said his office had confirmed that, from 2007 until last year, US$1.08 million was transferred to Zakhilwal’s personal accounts held with Standard Chartered and Alfalah banks, including US$200,000 from a private company in 2009.

Tolo said that amounts of between US$50,000 and US$100,000 were transferred from 2007 onwards, including US$100,000 transferred in July 2007 to a bank in Canada to buy a house. A payment of US$70,000 was sent to his sister, Malalai Zakhilwal, the station said.

The monthly salary of an Afghan minister was US$2,000, with US$1,400 in food allowances, Ludin said, and yet Zakhilwal had recently bought a car worth US$160,000.

“We should investigate this because he already has three cars belonging to the government,” Ludin said.

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