Legal teams begin training for special courts in counter-narcotics drive

December 14, 2004 - KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) Afghan and British officials preparing a crackdown on Afghanistan's booming illegal narcotics industry began training a legal task force Sunday for special courts they hope will begin jailing heroin and opium kingpins within months.

The six-week course opened at the headquarters of Afghanistan's new Counter Narcotics Police in the Afghan capital, officials said, under a plan to give specialist skills to 35 investigators, 35 prosecutors and 15 judges.

A secure court and prison facility is being set up at a notorious prison near Kabul to house the first convicts by the middle of 2005. "One of the problems in the past has been that drug traffickers could be arrested but couldn't be prosecuted,'' British Ambassador Rosalind Marsden said. The new legal team will "ensure that prosecutions can be effectively mounted.''

Under pressure from the United States and Europe, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has vowed to eliminate the exploding narcotics industry, which the United Nations warns is turning the impoverished country into a "narco-state.''

U.S. and British counter-narcotics experts are training Afghan security forces who have already begun destroying drug stockpiles, smashing refining laboratories and arresting traffickers.

Plans are also being laid to punish farmers by destroying opium poppy crops in key growing regions early next year. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars are earmarked to help them switch to less lucrative but legal crops.

Mirwais Yasini, the Afghan government's top drugs official, said security forces aimed to seize their first top-level smugglers or refiners "very soon'' and that graduates from the legal training program would be ready to bring cases against them by early February.