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June 16, 2019

A case of ‘balancing act’ or ‘belated awakening’ of NAB?

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June 16, 2019

ISLAMABAD: Is it a case of “balancing act” or “belated awakening” of NAB that Punjab Minister for Forestry Sibtain Khan was arrested now in a case that was referred to the Bureau for probe several years ago both by the LHC and the then provincial government?

The tricky aspect of this arrest is if the case is seriously probed it may lead to more arrests of some bureaucrats as well as important partners of the present government. Without going into the merits of the case, Sibtain Khan’s arrest, however badly reflects on the Bureau’s unchecked discretionary powers of arresting anyone at any stage, shelving one case for years and initiating immediate probe on another complaint, keeping the files pending and then opening them at the time of its own choosing. Sibtain Khan reportedly told the accountability court on Saturday that the case in which he has been arrested was probed by the NAB and the inquiry was closed down but it has now been re-opened again. The accused in his statement, which again speaks volumes about the controversial functioning of the NAB, said the then chairman NAB and other officials should also be summoned and asked why did they close the case, which has now been re-opened.

Although NAB spokesman was not available for his comments, a senior Bureau source insisted Sibtain’s arrest is a routine affair as per the law and the merit. The source denied that it to be a “balancing act”. Sibtain Khan was arrested on charges of illegally awarding a multi-billion-dollar mining contract in Chiniot district to an alleged fake company in 2007. As a Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) minister for mines and minerals at that time, he had awarded the contract for extracting minerals in Chiniot district.

Alleged characters involved in the 2007 of what was considered a failed robbery of Chiniot treasure, remained untraced despite NAB being told both by the LHC and the Punjab government in 2008 to probe the case but nothing was done apparently because of the involvement of some influential “hidden hand” that was aggressively pushing and pursuing the case for the controversial contact signed in late 2007. The News had reported the matter in Feb 2015 and revealed that a joint venture was signed with an unknown, alleged to be a “fake” company, in a hush-hush and rush-rush manner on a public holiday, 23rd March 2007. One US based Arshad Waheed of Earth Resource Private Limited (EPRL) moved his request for the joint venture and the same day EPRL men met the then mining minister Sibtain Khan at his official residence. They met again the next day on 24th March and within the next few days’ time, ERPL men were given complete briefing about the hidden treasures in Chiniot.

Although the agreement was signed in December 2007, despite the Managing Director Mining’s request for the case to be duly examined by the Finance Department as well as the Law Department Punjab but it was not done. The government had allotted this iron and copper reserve to ERPL without competitive bidding in a non-transparent manner and on conditions where all rights of this huge national asset were being transferred to the company by the government with the commitment that in return, the latter would get only 20 percent shares. But interestingly this deal was struck without ascertaining the standing of the company and its shares, which according to The News report could not be ascertained. More so the agreement was also not signed on a stamp paper. In his 23rd March 2007 application written by Arshad Waheed to Mining Minister Sibtain Khan, it was acknowledged that “the concerned department of the government of Punjab has discovered Hematite and Magnetite at the above reference location (Chiniot and Rajoa) during its preliminary exploration activities.” Here the question arose that why despite the initial discoveries the national wealth was sold out for mere 20% share, which too was never confirmed whether the company had any shares or not.

On 27th March 2007, Waheed wrote to Sibtain at his official GoR residential address, thanking him for the 23rd and 24th March meetings besides having being facilitated for meetings with Punjab Mineral authorities including the DG Mines. On the basis of these meetings, Waheed intended to enter into a joint venture with government of Punjab to accomplish (i) Complete the exploration activitie and prepare the techno-economic feasibility report, (ii) Establish and commission a world class mining operation, and (iii) Establish a Steel mill. The News report while referring to official documents, had added that by then the Punjab Mining Department was working on 1100 acres of land but the ERPL wanted to apply for exploration rights for additional 5000 acres of the adjacent areas. On April 23, the initial application of 23rd March was processed by the Mining Department with Sibtain Khan’s directions: “Pl process and put up a detailed report within 03 days. Treat it as a most urgent case.” His the then Secretary and other officials also marked it as “Time limit” case and sought the views of the MD Punjab Mineral Development Corporation (PUNJMIN) within 3 days. Sources said that some senior officials in PUNJMIN expressed their reservations and were not keen to go ahead with this venture. The matter when delayed in September 2007 the PUNJMIN Board decided, “The Board directed PUNJMIN to hold negotiations with ERPL and put up case to Secretary Mines with agreed MoU for further approval of government of the Punjab.”

Later the Mining Department further pursued the case which, when referred to PUNJMIN MD, he advised that the draft MoU with ERPL should be referred to the Finance Department as well as the Law Department for detailed review of legal and financial issues involved. However, the then Secretary Mineral department overlooked his advice and directed his additional secretary to prepare summary for the Chief Minister’s approval in regard to the joint venture. The same day fair summary was issued which was subsequently approved by the then Chief Minister following which the joint venture was signed. In the summary, it was mentioned that the Iron Ore reserves were generally of low grade.

After the 2008 elections, the following government of Shahbaz Sharif had revoked the fishy deal in 2008 whereas the superior judiciary when approached by the aggrieved party had also endorsed the decision and noted, “stark violations in the disposal and transfer of public property and heartless breach of public trust by the public functionaries (public trustees) cannot be overlooked.” The LHC added, “they (those in the government) must act to achieve the collective interest. Indeed, there is a serious concern — a concern that history has repeatedly validated — that representatives of the government will develop their own interests and use the tremendous power granted them for purposes that did not reflect that collective good.” Both the LHC and the Punjab government had referred the case to the NAB.

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