Three Afghan Cabinet officials and 12 former ministers are under investigation for alleged corruption, the attorney general's office said Tuesday, announcing cases that could signal whether the government is serious about fighting graft in its ranks.
President Hamid Karzai pledged in his second inaugural address last week to support the arrests of anyone involved in corruption. International leaders, who have threatened to hold back troops and development money unless Karzai tackles the rampant problem, say they will hold him to that promise.
"We are investigating allegations against 15 ministers _ three of them in the current Cabinet and the rest of them former ministers," Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar, first deputy attorney general, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
He declined to name any of the ministers under investigation. He said none had been questioned yet.
Faqiryar said that under Afghan law, a special court is needed to prosecute a Cabinet minister.
"Fortunately that court is being established very soon," he said. "The president will approve the judges for that court."
But Abdul Malik Kamawi, a member of the Afghanistan Supreme Court, said in an interview that a law authorizing the special court still must be approved by parliament. In the meantime, former government officials can be prosecuted in other Afghan courts.
Faqiryar said some of the former ministers under investigation are living in exile outside of Afghanistan.
He said the attorney general's office has asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Interpol for help in arresting them and returning them to Afghanistan to face charges.
Speaking earlier Tuesday at a news conference, Karzai's spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said no arrest warrants had been issued for any government ministers, though he did not reference the investigations announced by Faqiryar.
Hamidzada was responding to allegations that money was pocketed at the Afghan Ministry of Hajj and Mosque. Sediq Chakari, who heads the ministry, said two of his employees were being investigated in connection with missing money paid to the government to organize travel and accommodation for this year's annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
"There are no arrest warrants for the Cabinet ministers, including Minister Chakari," Hamidzada said.
Earlier this month, two U.S. officials in Washington said that Afghanistan's minister of mines, Muhammad Ibrahim Adel, allegedly took a $20 million bribe to steer a $3 billion copper mining project to a Chinese company.
The minister denied taking any bribes, saying the agreement was approved by the Cabinet and Karzai was also aware of it.