KABUL, Afghanistan – The Afghan attorney general's office on Thursday announced four arrests in its investigation of fraud during the controversial September parliamentary election — a move some Western officials fear is part of efforts by the political elite to overturn the results of certain races.
The arrests are the latest development in the Sept. 18 ballot that was plagued by irregularities and voter intimidation. Election officials discarded 1.3 million ballots — nearly a quarter of the total — for fraud and disqualified 19 winning candidates for cheating.
Deputy Attorney General Rahmatullah Nazari told reporters that two employees of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission and two people working in the money transfer business had been arrested and that an arrest warrant had been issued for a third commission employee.
The election flap, heating up just ahead of President Barack Obama's December Afghan review, comes at a time when NATO and its allies need President Hamid Karzai's government to be seen as a strong partner in the war.
The international community views the election as a test of his commitment to reforming his corruption-ridden government since he was re-elected last year in a vote that was itself heavily tainted by fraud. The allegations last year nearly undermined the legitimacy of Karzai's government and pushed some NATO countries to threaten to pull troops and aid.
Election officials announced final vote totals on Wednesday for 33 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. About 2,500 candidates ran for 249 seats in the lower house of the Afghan legislature, leaving hundreds of losers. Many have staged demonstrations across the country, claiming they were victims of phony vote tallies.
Releasing the final results now irked Attorney General Mohammad Ishaq Alako, who claimed election officials should have waited until prosecutors finished investigating criminal allegations of ballot manipulation. Alako claimed earlier this week that money from well-connected Afghans, many of whom bank their riches in Dubai, heavily influenced the election results.
Once the investigation is completed — hopefully within a month — the results will be handed to the Supreme Court, according to Nazari. A Western diplomatic official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate political issue, said the Supreme Court had the authority to issue rulings that could change the outcome of certain races.
The prospect of the Supreme Court hearing election cases has raised speculation among Western diplomats who allege that Karzai or his advisers are behind the attorney general's investigation and would pressure the Supreme Court to rule in favor of candidates backed by the palace.
Other Western officials maintain that while the Afghan prosecutor was being pressured by hundreds of people unhappy with the election results, they had seen no evidence that Karzai was employing this strategy.
The deputy attorney general denied that Karzai was behind the election investigation. He said the attorney general's office operated independently and was obligated to investigate election-related crime.
"We will just investigate the crimes," Nazari said. "The decision belongs to the Supreme Court."
However, Candace Rondeaux, senior analyst in Kabul for the International Crisis Group, noted that the attorney general had intervened on Karzai's behalf in the past. The group is an independent, nonprofit organization that works to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.
"This is not the first time that we have seen Karzai use the Supreme Court as his bully pulpit and the attorney general as his whipping boy," Rondeaux said in an interview. "This is a very serious crisis we are entering because there is no way that members of parliament who are contesting this election will sit still for this kind of abuse of power. We have seen demonstrations across the country. The game is not over yet."
In a statement, Karzai urged losing candidates not to resort to violent protests, but to submit their complaints to the appropriate authorities so that they can be properly investigated. The brief statement also said that the president was respecting the constitution and "will act accordingly."
Election commission spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor declined to comment on the arrests, saying the commission did not know which of its more than 85,000 employees had been arrested.
Nazari told reporters at the attorney general's office that prosecutors were investigating at least five cases of election bribery involving sums ranging from $80,000 and $220,000.
"One important person who has a role in this case has not yet been arrested," he said. "The person not yet arrested is an IEC employee — high-ranking — one who is making decisions."
Nazari also displayed papers naming candidates and people in the money transfer business, which he said proved that bribes were involved.
He declined to name those arrested.
Dan McNorton, a U.N. spokesman in Kabul, said he was aware of reports that a U.N.-affiliated election worker had been targeted in the attorney general's case. He said he was looking into the matter.
Final results have not yet been released for Ghazni province in the east where a myriad of problems clouded the ballot.
Abdullah Ahmadzai, a member of the election commission, says the panel had to decide between certifying and announcing the current results in Ghazni or ordering a revote for the province, where many polling stations were closed, others were excluded because of fraud and turnout was almost nonexistent in some districts.
As a result, no candidates from the majority Pashtun ethnic group won seats — a potentially inflammatory result in an already volatile province. Instead, preliminary results showed that all 11 winning candidates are Hazaras, members of an ethnic minority group.
Associated Press Writer Massieh Neshat in Kabul contributed to this report.