KABUL -- The Afghan government is taking a number of practical steps to eliminate corruption and improve transparency in government affairs, observers say, with the suspension of a top minister as the latest example.
Afghanistan remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to the latest Transparency International (TI) Corruption Perceptions Index, published January 25.
The country has shown marginal improvement over the past five years, according to the report. In 2016, Afghanistan received a score of 15 on TI's scale -- which runs from zero (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean) -- up from 11 in 2015, 12 in 2014, and 8 in 2013 and 2012.
President Ashraf Ghani has made the fight against corruption one of the main priorities of the National Unity Government (NUG), calling graft a major barrier to reform and development.
Continuing these efforts, the government on January 2 suspended Minister of Communications and Information Technology Abdul Razaq Wahidi for alleged interference in a corruption probe, local news reported.
The decision to suspend Wahidi came after an audit into the collection of a 10% tax on mobile phone "top-ups" (advance payments enabling more phone calls) imposed in 2015.
"In order for the investigation to continue impartially and to avoid interference, it was necessary to suspend him," Dawa Khan Menapal, Ghani's deputy spokesman, told reporters, adding that Wahidi will remain suspended until the probe is over.
Wahidi has rejected the allegations against him, saying his ministry "completed its job transparently and evidence is there to prove it".
Justice takes patience
In another move towards sweeping out corruption, Ghani inaugurated the Anti-Corruption Criminal Justice Centre in June 2016.
In November, the court handed down its first sentence: two and a half years in prison for military prosecutor Gen. Abdul Haye Jurat.
Jurat was caught red-handed pocketing 50,000 AFN ($760) from a prisoner's family, which he demanded to ensure the man's release at the end of his sentence, AFP reported.
"The sum is small, but the accused is a two-star general," Judge Mohammed Alif Urfani told AFP. "We proved that we can bring high-ranking officers to justice."
Urfani, 32, who heads the anti-corruption centre, urged Afghans to be patient with the court.
"Some cases take years: when you want to bring a minister to justice, you need proof and to arrest the people involved," he said. "If you go too fast, you will lose."
"The Anti-Corruption Criminal Justice Centre is specifically designed to be insulated from outside interference," said Fazl Haq Murad, an economist and owner of Murad Economic Magazine.
"Its physical location and the creation of a simple end-to-end justice process make it difficult to infiltrate, lobby or interfere with without detection," he told Salaam Times.
Political will for reform
The government's establishment of Anti-Corruption Criminal Justice Centre and the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption is a clear sign of the government's determination to fight corruption, said Logar Province Governor Mohammad Halim Fidai.
Fidai urged citizens to promote the culture of transparency by reporting corruption when they witness it.
"To bring transparency and to be free of any corruption, it is necessary to be united in this fight and support the government by identifying corrupt officials," he said, adding that civil society organisations and media can play a major role in raising awareness of the damage that corruption inflicts on society.
Wahidi's suspension is not the only instance of the NUG's efforts to bring transparency to government offices and to purge them of corruption, said Faraidoon Khwazoon, a spokesperson for Afghan government Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
"It is clear such moves will continue, and it confirms that the NUG is fully committed to fighting corruption," he told Salaam Times.
The government's actions have inspired confidence that it is committed to dealing seriously with corruption, even concerning the powerful, said Fareshta Amini, an economics student at Kabul University.
"The suspension of a minister is a first step in Afghanistan," she told Salaam Times. "We couldn't imagine that the government would take such action, but now we understand and believe [in] the NUG."