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Review: Kabul Bank sent millions of dollars abroad

Wednesday - 11/28/2012, 12:10pm  ET

FILE - In this Sept. 1, 2010, file photo, Afghan soldiers chat in front of the main office of Kabul Bank in Kabul, Afghanistan. A new report offers previously undisclosed details about how the owners of Kabul Bank and their friends and relatives got rich off $861million in fraudulent loans _ a Ponzi scheme using customer deposits that operated under nascent banking oversight in the war-torn country.(AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq, File)

DEB RIECHMANN
Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Hundreds of millions of dollars from Kabul Bank were spirited out of Afghanistan -- some smuggled in airline food trays -- to bank accounts in more than two dozen countries, according to an independent review released on Wednesday about massive fraud that led to the collapse of the nation's largest financial institution.

The report, which was financed by international donors, offers new details about how the men at Kabul Bank and their friends and relatives got rich off $861 million in fraudulent loans in what the International Monetary Fund has called a Ponzi scheme that used customer deposits and operated under nascent banking oversight in the war-torn country.

The report describes Kabul Bank as a sophisticated operation with one set of books for the eyes of regulators and another in the back room that logged how those running the bank and others were fattening their wallets.

Loans were made, but rarely repaid. Borrowers took out loans to pay back loans. Company documents and financial statements were fabricated. The bank's credit department used more than 100 corporate stamps for fake companies to make documents look authentic. The bank operated some of its more than 100 branches without a permit from the government.

The 87-page report, which was conducted to satisfy one of several benchmarks the IMF asked the Afghan government to meet in cleaning up the scandal, points to poor oversight by Afghan banking regulators, political interference in the criminal investigation and activities by a special judicial tribunal hearing the case that it said were "well outside the legal norms of criminal procedure."

The bank's failure and subsequent bailout represents more than 5 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, making it "one of the largest banking failures in the world," according to the report by the Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee. The report said "hundreds of millions" were sent out of the impoverished nation where Afghan, U.S. and NATO forces are fighting an 11-year-old war with the Taliban and other militants.

The committee behind the report consisted of three Afghan professionals and scholars and three international corruption experts, and was funded by Britain's Department of International Development and the Danish International Development Agency.

"Every citizen in Afghanistan will bear the cost of the hundreds of millions of dollars required to secure deposits and the tens of millions of dollars required to deal with the aftermath," the report said.

The Kabul Bank scandal is a saga about money-grabbing, weak banking oversight, lax prosecution, nepotism, political contributions and fraud. The cast of characters includes a poker-playing bank chairman, an Afghan central bank chairman who feared his life was endangered and fled to the U.S., the wealthy brothers of the Afghan president and vice president, and bank shareholders -- some who bought posh properties in Dubai and spent lavishly on themselves and their circle of friends and relatives.

In October 2011, Afghan lawmakers passed a bill to provide up to $825 million to recapitalize Afghanistan's central bank for bailing out Kabul Bank. Whatever money is recovered from debtors will offset this amount.

"This is the money from the budget of Afghanistan -- from the pockets of Afghan people," Drago Kos, chairman of the committee, told reporters at a news conference Wednesday in Kabul. "This money should be much better used for health care, education and security."

President Hamid Karzai announced in April 2011 that Kabul Bank would be put into receivership. Earlier this month, a trial began for more than 20 people indicted in the debacle, which has become a symbol of the country's deep-rooted corruption and cronyism. The case is being closely followed by Afghans and international donors because it is a barometer of government officials' pledge to root out patronage, graft and show accountability to international donors.

The report said Afghan authorities learned in late 2009 that "Kabul Bank was moving money through food trays" on flights operated by Pamir Airways, a multimillion-dollar Afghan airline that was established with loans from the bank and has since gone out of business.

An official knowledgeable about the report said as much as $900 million -- a majority derived from loan schemes -- was moved out of the country through electronic transfers from the bank between March 2007 and April 2011 and ended up in the bank accounts of related parties in 28 countries. The list of countries includes the United Arab Emirates, Latvia, China, Turkmenistan, Britain, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Turkey, Russia, the United States and Switzerland.

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