Kingsport Times News Saturday, October 25, 2014
Local News

Afghan anti-corruption chief was convicted heroin trafficker 20 years ago

March 8th, 2007 11:00 pm by Associated Press



KABUL, Afghanistan - When the deal went down in Las Vegas, the seller was introduced only as "Mr. E." In a room at Caesars Palace hotel, Mr. E exchanged a pound-and-a-half bag of heroin for $65,000 cash - unaware that the buyer was an undercover detective. The sting landed him in Nevada state prison for nearly four years.


Twenty years later and Mr. E, whose real name is Izzatullah Wasifi, has a new job. He is the government of Afghanistan's anti-corruption chief.


Wasifi leads a staff of 84 people charged with rooting out the endemic graft that is fueled in part by the country's position as the world's largest producer of opium poppy, the raw ingredient of heroin.


President Hamid Karzai's office won't say if he knew about the drug conviction when Wasifi was appointed two months ago as general-director of the General Independent Administration of Anti-Corruption and Bribery. Wasifi, a childhood friend of Karzai, is the son of a prominent Afghan nationalist leader.


An Associated Press review of criminal records in Nevada and California revealed that the 48-year-old Wasifi was arrested at Caesars Palace on July 15, 1987, for selling 650 grams (23 ounces) of heroin. Prosecutors said the drugs were worth $2 million on the street.


Wasifi served three years and eight months in prison before winning parole.


In an interview in his modest office at the anti-corruption bureau in Kabul, Wasifi confirmed to AP that he had been imprisoned in Nevada for a drug offense, although his account of events differed from the court records of his case.


He said he was arrested on the third day of his honeymoon. His then-wife, named in court records as Fereshteh Behbahani, bought cocaine for her own use in a bar of a Las Vegas hotel and brought it to their room where they were arrested, he said.


"My wife made an error," said Wasifi, looking dapper in a navy suit and waistcoat.


"A lot of people go to Las Vegas for fun and for snuff," he continued, pointing to his nostril and sniffing. "This thing happened."


In Los Angeles, Wasifi's ex-wife Behbahani, 50, who was sentenced to three years probation for conspiring to traffic drugs with Wasifi, declined to be interviewed by an AP reporter.


"My mother says they are all political lies. This incident happened a long time ago and she has moved on. We are a very private family," her son Tony said.


Wasifi is the son of Azizullah Wasifi, a former agriculture minister and aide to former Afghan King Mohammed Zaher Shah. Wasifi said he grew up in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, with Karzai and has known the 49-year-old president since childhood. Both men studied in India at the same time - Wasifi earning a bachelors degree at Punjab Agricultural University.


Wasifi's family went into exile after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, first in Pakistan, then in the United States.


According to Wasifi, Karzai's elder brother, Qayyum, now an Afghan lawmaker, gave Wasifi his first job after he moved to the U.S. in 1983, working as a waiter at a hotel restaurant he ran in Maryland. Wasifi later ran a restaurant himself in Los Angeles. He and his brother Bashir had a franchise of Ameci Pizza & Pasta between 1994-1999, company president Nick Andrisano confirmed.


Wasifi remained politically active in the expatriate community during exile, as his father sought to bring different Afghan factions together under the leadership of the aging king. He returned to Afghanistan in 2001 after the U.S.-led ouster of the hard-line Taliban regime.


Wasifi is adamant his drug conviction in the United States should not affect his ability to serve in government in Afghanistan, and compares his situation to President Bush, who was once arrested in 1976 for drunk driving.


"Everybody through their lifetime has done something, fallen somewhere or done some mistake," said Wasifi, who wears a neat beard and mustache and gold-rimmed reading spectacles. "That's the only thing I can say about it."


He pointed to his record as governor of western Farah province, where opium production dropped 25 percent during his 14-month tenure before he took his current position. Counternarcotics officials said the drop was mostly due to drought, but also due to poppy eradication campaigns led by Wasifi.


Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium. The drop in Farah bucked an alarming nationwide trend that saw poppy cultivation rise 59 percent between 2005 and 2006 to an all-time high - producing enough for about 670 tons of heroin. U.N. officials warn that this year could see a record crop.


Officials who worked with Wasifi in Farah mostly commended his work.


They said he promoted development, persuaded Iran to open a border crossing to increase trade and also got on well with U.S. forces who ran a provincial reconstruction base in the Afghan province. "Roads were built during his time. He built clinics and schools. Most of the time he consulted with Farah elders to hear what they had to say. He was from Kandahar, but he would not discriminate," said Shah Mohammad Noor, the head of official archives in Farah. In his new job, Wasifi is charged with tackling bribery and administrative corruption rather than pursuing counternarcotics cases. He is vowing to tackle graft "from the top down" and wants to place anti-graft investigators to monitor every ministry. But allegations of corruption and immorality have swirled around Wasifi too. Such accusations are common in Afghan officialdom, where graft is endemic and many police and administrators profit from the $3 billion narcotics trade. He categorically denies any involvement. Anti-narcotics officials in Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity, say there is no evidence to prove that Wasifi is still involved in Afghanistan's booming heroin trade. Nafaz Gul, a female lawmaker from Farah, also accused him of un-Islamic behavior, such as drinking alcohol. She said Wasifi was replaced as governor after locals last August staged a protest over deteriorating security in the province. Those allegations pale next to accusations leveled at Afghan faction leaders suspected of war crimes during years of civil conflict. But Wasifi's record as a convicted felon stands out in a country just starting to re-establish its justice system. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department report that was submitted as evidence at his trial describes how an undercover police detective, posing as a drug dealer, met Wasifi in a bar of the Caesars Palace on the evening of July 15, 1987 - Wasifi's 29th birthday. A confidential police informant with Wasifi introduced him as "Mr. E." The three went together to a room in the hotel, where Wasifi produced 650 grams of brown "Persian" heroin packed in a gray plastic bag from behind one of the pillows on the bed. He offered to sell it for $65,000. When the detective later handed over the money, Wasifi said he was getting 13.2 pounds of heroin within the next 20 days from Afghanistan. As Wasifi left after the transaction, he was arrested. His wife, Behbahani, who appeared to be acting as a lookout in the hallway, was also nabbed, the police report said. Court records show Wasifi pleaded guilty to trafficking in a controlled substance and was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Aug. 10, 1988. That was reduced to six years after he got a new lawyer and appealed, on Nov. 4, 1991, saying he was duped by ineffective counsel into pleading to a no-parole sentence. He was freed by the end of 1991 - in line with state policies which allow for release after about two-thirds of time served. He was also fined $50,000. According to Wasifi's written plea at his appeal, police had wanted him to work undercover for them, and they freed the couple without any type of bond after their initial arrest. But Wasifi could not find more drug dealers for police to arrest. He was unable to locate his original heroin supplier and "did not know anyone in the drug underworld," the plea said. The couple were rearrested on a charge of unlawful flight in March 1988 at their Los Angeles home and then tried for drug trafficking. According to Wasifi's plea, they had not attempted to flee and were unaware that they had been indicted in September 1987, 163 days after their original arrest in Las Vegas. Karzai spokesman Khaleeq Ahmed said he could not immediately comment on whether or not the president had been aware of Wasifi's record when he appointed him. But Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, say Wasifi's criminal record is known to U.N. officials and international donors and that Karzai is under pressure to replace him. They have not gone public with their concerns in expectation that Karzai will take action, the diplomats said. Wasifi, in the AP interview, warned that publicizing his drug conviction would only "sharpen the knives" of corrupt critics in government who wanted him out because of his threats to expose them. "How many people do we see in this country who are killers, the biggest drug traffickers? They are ruining this administration, this regime," he said. "What about them?"

comments powered by Disqus