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Afghan finance minister faces corruption investigation

Afghan Finance Minister Hazarat Omar Zakhilwal.—AP Photo

KABUL: Afghanistan’s top anti-corruption chief said on Thursday the finance minister’s business affairs will be investigated after accusations aired on Afghan television that he stashed away more than $1 million in overseas banks.

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 Afghanistan’s largest commercial TV channel, Tolo TV.

Tolo showed what it said were his private bank statements on one of its programmes.

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 $1,500 per day,” Zakhilwal, also President Hamid Karzai’s top economics counsellor, 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 United Nations.

Afghanistan’s High Office of Oversight and Anti-corruption chief, Dr. Azizullah Ludin, told Reuters that he was not convinced by the denials and an investigation would begin into Zakhilwal’s business affairs on Saturday.

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 $16 billion pledged in future aid at an international donor’s conference in Tokyo tied to a serious effort to crack down on graft.

Fourth car “worth $160,000”

Afghanistan’s Western backers have repeatedly called for more action to counter rampant skimming and kickbacks paid from the more than $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 Supreme Court to accelerate investigations already under way.

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

Ludin said his office had already confirmed that, from 2007 until 2011, $1,080,000 was transferred to Zakhilwal’s personal accounts held with Standard Chartered and Alfalah banks, including $200,000 from a private company in 2009.

Tolo said that amounts of between $50,000 and $100,000 were transferred from 2007 onwards, including $100,000 transferred in July 2007 to a bank in Canada to buy a house.

A payment of $70,000 was sent to his sister, Malalai Zakhilwal, the station said.

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

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

Zakilwal’s spokesman said the money mostly came from business dealings prior to 2007 and said the investigation should instead focus on “how government and private secrets were disclosed”.

Zakhilwal as finance minister oversees government revenue from taxation, as well as customs, the department most frequently accused of corruption and bribery demands.

Ludin said there were serious problems in the finance ministry, with “extreme fraud cases” already uncovered involving customs officials at the Torkham border post alongside Pakistan and the Hiratan customs outpost near Uzbekistan, in the north.

More than $60 million had gone missing over the years in Hiratan alone, he said.

Asked by Tolo about the transfers, Zakhilwal said he had been “happier when I was working in roles outside of the government, because there were less conspiracies surrounding me”.

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