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Afghan court sets tribunal on vote fraud

The move could bring new uncertainty less than a month before the 249-seat parliament opens.

KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghanistan's Supreme Court has set up a special tribunal to review complaints of fraud stemming from the Sept. 18 parliamentary elections - a move that could bring new uncertainty to a poll already marred by massive irregularities.

The development comes less than a month before the 249-seat parliament convenes Jan. 20, and it remains unclear whether the tribunal can make any decisions that could alter the final result, which the international community has accepted.

But it is sure to complicate the tainted election process and raise more doubt about Afghanistan's ability to govern itself as the U.S.-led coalition makes plans to gradually hand over responsibility for the country to its own security forces by 2014.

President Hamid Karzai issued a decree Sunday empowering the five-member tribunal, his legal adviser Nasrullah Stanekzai said Monday.

The tribunal was initially proposed by the nine-member Supreme Court after it received scores of complaints about fraud and corruption forwarded by the attorney general's office, court spokesman Abdul Wakel Omary said.

Karzai is "committed and wishes to inaugurate the new parliament at the proper time," presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said.

The court will investigate legal issues associated with the undetermined number of complaints and, if necessary, refer any cases to the anticorruption courts for trial and sentencing, Omary added.

Election officials insist that neither the attorney general nor the Supreme Court has the authority to change the final results issued Nov. 24.

The Independent Elections Commission, however, did not rule out that criminal cases could be brought against individual officials or candidates on corruption issues.

"Any decision by anyone or any institution after the announcement of the final result" by the commission is not legal, commission spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor said. The exception, he said, was if there was "evidence against individuals within the commission or any other individuals" associated with the elections.

Afghanistan's Sept. 18 ballot 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. The attorney general's office also began a separate investigation into allegations of ballot manipulation.

Attorney General Mohammad Ishaq Alako said earlier this month that votes were bought and sold to such an extent that the results could be invalid.

A spokesman for the Elections Complaints Commission, which was responsible for investigating complaints of fraud, said any complaints that could affect the final election results had already been dealt with.

Many had hoped the vote would prove a success story for Karzai after a fraud-marred presidential poll hurt his credibility last year. Instead, the latest vote has been just as mired in allegations of fraud and state-sanctioned cheating.

The attorney general earlier this month also sent a letter to the Supreme Court asking it to annul the results and issue sentences against 14 top officials who organized the vote and oversaw fraud investigations, Deputy Attorney General Rahmatullah Nazari said.

Stanekzai, Karzai's legal adviser, said that Afghans had the constitutional right to file complaints about the workings of either of the election commission, and that those complaints had to be heard if valid.