ISLAMABAD: In 2000, an anti-corruption drive was at its peak. There was “zero tolerance” for the corrupt. Gen Pervez Musharraf’s accountability czar, Lt Gen (retd) Syed Amjad Hussain, furnished a list of 200 Pakistanis who had allegedly looted public money and stashed it abroad.
A deal was signed with a foreign firm to detect the stolen assets. Twenty percent of the recovered amount was to go to the firm. But the deal ended in litigation in 2003 when the firm, an offshore company named Broadsheet LLC, filed a $500 million breach-of-contract lawsuit at the Council of International Arbitration (CIA) against the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). The Musharraf government, Broadsheet alleged, had used the information it provided to broker deals with the targeted individuals.
While the decision of the London-based CIA is imminent, with little to no chance of relief for Pakistan, news of another list is in the air. This time, an anti-corruption drive is being led by the Imran Khan administration. A cabinet meeting held late on Wednesday decided to go after the elements. The top 100 Pakistanis would be targeted in the first phase. Just as a 20 percent share of the recovered amount was reserved for the foreign firm in 2000, a similar cut of the take has been promised this time round to the whistle-blowers who would share information. In 2000, the top of the target list was populated by Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari, the Chaudhrys of Gujrat and other politicians, businessmen and even some generals. But who are the 100 persons on the most wanted list this time? It has yet to be decided. “Right now, we have in mind 40-50 persons,” Mirza Shahzad Akbar, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Accountability, told The News.
More targets would be found, he vowed. Included among them are tax evaders, looters of public money and other big fish involved in financial crimes. “Volume of crime is the key criteria,” Shahzad said.
Unlike the past practice of assigning this task to a foreign firm, an official task force has been formed. The last attempt was solely an initiative of the NAB; this time, the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) are also part of the recovery campaign. The new list will comprise individuals wanted by these three departments.
How easy is the recovery of stolen assets? That is anybody’s guess. Even Shahzad Akbar was not prepared to commit to any time-frame. He denied a statement attributed the other day to him wherein he supposedly said it would be done “very soon”. However, his optimism is largely grounded on the anticipated responses of other countries which, he believes, would happily cooperate. The problem, according to his understanding, is with our system.
There were 200 Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) requests of the NAB pending with different countries, he said, but no vigorous effort was made to pursue them. During the Panama Papers investigation, the British Virgin Islands (BVI) did not share the information demanded with respect to Nielsen and Nescoll, the companies owned by Nawaz Sharif’s adult children. The information requested was about their ownership.
However, a follow-up MLA request, seeking the verification of two letters which emerged from the Panama Papers, was entertained. The BVI confirmed they were part of its records and Maryam was the beneficial owner. This information was disputed by Maryam, who said she was a trustee. She took the position that it was not necessary to share the trust deed with the BVI.
Likewise, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government claims it would approach the British government to take possession of the notorious Avenfield apartments in London. Doing so would not legally possible unless the accountability court verdict is upheld by the Supreme Court, whereas the review petition is presently pending with Islamabad High Court. Again, Pakistan would have to prove that the apartments in question were purchased with the proceeds of corruption, a point that the NAB failed to establish in the accountability court.
As for as the other individuals named in Panama Papers, the FBR has sent notices. Several of the recipients did not not respond; others refused to admit ownership. Although credible documents obtained from the Panama Papers established their links with the offshore companies, they could not fulfill the requirements of the laws of evidence, which require original and verified papers.
When the FBR contacted the offshore jurisdictions where the companies were registered, the concerned authorities were not inclined to share the sought-after information, either. Among them was Mauritius, where the head of the revenue authority is former FBR member, S.M. Lal.
Similar questions would arise in other cases, whenever and whichever country would be approached. The major challenge for the task force would be to prove that the assets abroad belonged to the individuals targeted.
Recently, the FIA and the FBR went after Pakistanis named in the leaked list of Dubai property owners. Instructively, several separate efforts by both departments to persuade the Dubai authorities to furnish information met with failure.