Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Afghanistan: Disarming Afghan Politicians - 400 Kalashnikov rifles and pistols missing from former members’ offices

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, www.iwpr.net

Serving legislators get four guns apiece, and some forget to hand them back when they’re voted out of office.

In a parliamentary scandal of a peculiarly Afghan variety, former members are failing to hand back the firearms they were issued with.

As well as around 400 Kalashnikov rifles and pistols, computers have gone missing from former members’ offices, parliamentary staff say.

Although the loss of weapons and other items may seem minor in a country awash with guns and plagued with corruption, it is seen as symbolic of wider problems with the political system.

Every member of the upper or lower house of parliament can claim four firearms for the purposes of personal protection, but if they lose their seats, as many did in the September 2010 election, they are supposed to give them back.

Parliament’s security chief Sher Aziz Kamawal says 115 former deputies are holding onto 396 rifles and pistols, with no legal justification.

“Under the law, former members of parliament are not authorised to fire, keep or carry these weapons,” he said. “If some incident occurs, they will be held responsible, because they’re carrying the weapons without an official licence.”

Kamawal said that while some politicians claimed they still needed armed protection after leaving office, “parliament has no responsibility or role to play in ensuring the security of former legislators”.

Moin Marastial, a former member for the northern Kunduz province, said he would hand back his parliament-issue weapons the moment he received a formal written request.

“When I’m officially asked about it, I will be prepared to return the weapons to parliament,” he said.

Kamawal said his staff had in fact written to former lawmakers asking them to return firearms.

When IWPR asked Mohammad Ali Setegh, who represented Daikondi in central Afghanistan until September last year, to comment on weapons he might be holding, his angry response was to deny he had been voted out of office at all.

“I am still a member of parliament with the same powers,” he said. “I will hit back hard at anyone who tries to defame me.”

Parliament’s director of finance Aziz Jahed expressed disappointment that parliamentary offices had been stripped by their occupants.

“We didn’t search legislators’ vehicles on entering or leaving parliament because we trusted them,” he said. “They abused their positions and took away four laptops and more than 30 desktop computers.”

He said public appeals for the return of the computers had fallen on deaf ears.

One former parliamentarian, Mohammad Yaqub, from Badghis province in northwestern Afghanistan, told IWPR that he still had his laptop but planned to return it as soon as possible, and that he had already given back his desktop computer.

Abdul Sattar Khawasi, a member of the current parliament, said such cases reflected a general failure to tackle systemic corruption.

“In the past ten years, not one corrupt individual has been dismissed or prosecuted on the watch of the international community and [President Hamed]Karzai’s government,” he said.

Khawasi said the sense of impunity had created a climate where people stole as much as they could from government institutions. In light of this, he said, the removal of weapons from parliament was “not just administrative corruption; it’s beyond corruption”.

Another serving parliamentarian, Qazi Nazir Ahmad Hanafi, warned that the case would undermine public faith in legislators.

Pointing out that it was members of the last parliament who designed the rules for borrowing and returning weapons, he asked, “What will people think of these individuals, knowing that they are no longer members of parliament?”

Kabul university student Shazia said the reports confirmed everything that people thought about politicians.

“From the very start, we were crying out that parliament was a safe haven for thieves and criminals, but no one would believe us,” she said. “The theft of weapons and computers – things that are of no great value – proves that these thieves won’t even leave small items of national property alone …. Where has the ten billion dollars’ worth of assistance from the international community gone?”

Another resident of the Afghan capital, schoolteacher Ainoddin, expressed similar cynicism, asking, “If the law itself is a thief, why complain that there are thieves…? There’s clearly no government and no law –everyone is a thief.”

Abdol Wahed Faramarz is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.