Kabul mayor still in office despite conviction

AP News
Posted: Dec 09, 2009 1:26 PM

President Hamid Karzai's promise to fight the rampant graft and bribery plaguing his government has hit a road bump _ right down the street from his palace. Despite a corruption conviction, the mayor of Kabul remains in charge of the Afghan capital.

Karzai has called for an end to a "culture of impunity" and said his government was committed to bringing to justice corrupt officials and abuse of public property. Yet the government's inability to block Mayor Abdul Ahad Sahebi from his job underscores the weakness of the Karzai administration.

Sahebi was found guilty on Monday of awarding a contract for a city project without competition. An Afghan court sentenced him to four years in jail and ordered him to repay more than $16,000 involved in the contract. Prosecutors have threatened to send police to the mayor's office Thursday if he doesn't step down.

The mayor, who is free pending his appeal to a higher court, insists he is innocent.

"I don't accept the court's decision," Sahebi told The Associated Press in his office on Wednesday. "There is a conspiracy against me."

He said he has asked members of parliament, the attorney general, the chief of the Supreme Court and the president himself to investigate the case.

"I am mayor," he said. "I am continuing my job."

A spokesman for Karzai, who is under intense international pressure to assemble a new corrupt-free Cabinet, did not return calls seeking comment about Sahebi.

The flap at City Hall prompted a flurry of correspondence this week between the mayor and prosecutors.

The 63-year-old mayor wrote a letter to the attorney general asking to remain free on appeal because he was ill.

The attorney general sent city administration officials a letter stating that the mayor no longer had the right to run the city.

"Tomorrow we will send police to stop him from working," deputy attorney general Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar said Wednesday.

Officials with the Afghan Supreme Court, the nation's highest bench, said they were shocked that Sahebi was back at work.

"Why is he released? Why is he having press conferences?" asked Mohammad Qasim Halimi, chief of administration for the high court. "I don't know, but again I say, the court decision was legal."

Mohammad Yaseen Usmani, the top official in the government's High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, said the mayor's release pending appeal did not violate any law, but he said that any actions Sahebi attempted to take as mayor would be voided.

"He doesn't have this right to go back to this duty and sit in his office," Usmani said. "He doesn't have the authority to sign any document."

While the mayoral drama played out in the heart of Kabul, government officials were holding a news conference across town to talk about steps to combat corruption.

Usmani said the ministers Karzai picks for his new Cabinet will be required to complete financial disclosures before they can be approved by parliament. Four of the government's 25 current ministers have failed to do so, he said.

The top U.N. official for Afghanistan did not address the mayor's case directly, but stressed at the news conference that existing laws need to be better implemented.

"The decisive element in order to fight corruption in Afghanistan is not the constant discussion of new mechanisms and new structures and new commissions," Kai Eide said. "We may need that, but structures do exist. A legal system does exist that is able, to a large extent, to address corruption."