Reporting from New Delhi and Kabul, Afghanistan —
Afghanistan's attorney general denied Sunday that a prosecutor investigating allegations of corruption in the upper reaches of the government had been fired, saying the official simply had reached the point when retirement was mandatory.
Atty. Gen. Mohammad Ishaq Aloko said during an interview in his Kabul office that prosecutor Fazel Ahmed Faqiryar stopped working Thursday in accordance with Afghan law after 40 years of service. The rules state that officials must step down if they are older than 65 or have served for four decades, he said.
The prosecutor was not forced out because of any conflict with President Hamid Karzai, Aloko said. Faqiryar's claim Saturday that he had been fired "is absolutely groundless," he said. "He wants to be admired by the public and the media. His retirement has no relation with corruption."
Faqiryar's exit from his post comes amid growing concern in Washington that billions in U.S. taxpayer money have been pocketed by Karzai's inner circle. At the same time, some U.S. officials fear that pushing the shaky government too hard on corruption could undermine the wider war effort.
A senior State Department official said Sunday that the facts of the prosecutor's case seemed unclear and that he was unaware whether anyone in the administration was raising the issue with the Karzai government. "We are watching this very closely," he said.
Another U.S. official said an open fight with Karzai probably would make him more intransigent and complicate relations ahead of parliamentary elections and major military operations scheduled for the coming weeks. "It's not worth the potential trouble over one prosecutor where the facts aren't entirely clear," the official said.
Both officials requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
In an interview Sunday in his modest Kabul apartment, Faqiryar disputed Aloko's account, saying he was authorized to work past 65. Like many Afghans, he doesn't know his exact birthday but says he's about 72. He also said he had worked only 39 years and five months, not counting schooling and five years under Taliban rule when he was off the government clock.
The prosecutor, who was also deputy attorney general, said his relations with the Karzai administration turned sour last year when he briefed a closed-door session of parliament regarding about 25 corruption cases the attorney general's office was working on, naming governors, ministers and ambassadors who were targets of investigation.
The attorney general quickly expressed his unhappiness with the move, Faqiryar said, "so from that time, our relations went bad."
Faqiryar said this rather tense atmosphere carried on until he sent a midlevel prosecutor to speak about corruption on a television station this month. After that, he said, his retirement was fast-tracked.
Faqiryar said he'd watched legal cases involving powerful officials delayed, sidelined and dismissed or the parties ruled not guilty. "We can implement the law on poor people," he said, "but not on rich and influential people."
Analysts said the Karzai administration appeared to be following a strategy used by other rulers in South Asia of diverting state resources to secure personal loyalties.
"It's not aimed at using government money to make a good society but, rather, to cement alliances," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Pakistan's Lahore University of Management Sciences and the author of a book on war, ethnicity and governance in Afghanistan. "It's a very heartbreaking story in Afghanistan."
This month, Karzai stepped in to stop the prosecution of a close aide, Mohammed Zia Salehi, who according to investigators was heard on a wiretap demanding a bribe from another Afghan hoping to foil a corruption investigation.
The Salehi case was still under investigation, Aloko said Sunday, but there was no risk of his escaping since "he's working in a high post." He added that Salehi would remain free until his case was in the investigation process.
In many parts of the country, the government only recently has gained a foothold amid security concerns, Aloko added, and, although many lower-level officials have been prosecuted, cases involving ministers have not gone ahead since, under the constitution, they need to be tried in special courts, which have not yet been established.
"Corruption is greatly reduced compared with before," he said. "Today, rule of law is revived, everyone fears the law and being prosecuted, and we have made progress."
Times staff writer Magnier reported from New Delhi and special correspondent Yaqubi from Kabul. Times staff writers David S. Cloud and Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondent Hashmat Baktash in Kabul contributed to this report.