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February 21, 2020

Recovering looted money wild goose chase

Top Story

February 21, 2020

ISLAMABAD: Rhetoric seems to have overshadowed the substance and the much-hyped recovery of money purportedly embezzled and stashed by politicians in their overseas bank accounts.

The promise by the government rode with the Asset Recovery Unit (ARU), which has very little, or to be more specific nothing, to show in terms of what has so far been recovered, informed government officials said.

However, another official said that detection and probe into white-collar crime was a cumbersome process. It had been only 18 months that the Unit was started. The government has three and a half years more to remain in power and soon people will hear good news in this regard. He said that the ARU was almost close to reveal some big scandals involving money.

Weeks after Premier Imran Khan came to power, his cabinet set up this unit, which collectively sucked in estimated Rs35 million from the public exchequer in past seventeen months. Loud whop of expenditure on international trips forced the country’s top audit body to conduct the special audit of unit’s expenditure, confirmed the government officials. The unit aimed to bring home the looted money.

“Over 15 international trips were made by ARU officials — their weeks’ long visits destined to Switzerland, London, Dubai, Beijing, etc. But promise of recovering looted money remains a wild goose chase,” revealed a senior official, associated with the ARU.

Geo News in its weeks’ long investigation, while seeing official record and interviewing around a dozen government officials, learnt that it was going to be an uphill task for the government to recover $11 billion ill-gotten wealth stashed abroad. “Despite cooperation of FIA and FBR, the unit could not make any significant progress on tracing assets of Pakistani nationals in 29 countries — even the Emirati authorities (citing confidentiality clauses) have yet to respond us,” added the official.

“Findings of Auditor General of Pakistan are being compiled where auditors have pointed some serious irregularities in expenditure of ARU — so audit planning and execution of unit is rest with the federal audit — report to be finalised by April this year,” confirmed a senior official associated with the AGP.

First trip was made to Switzerland on Nov 28, 2018 where officials spent five days to meet Swiss authorities to gather information about Pakistanis’ accounts. The first trip cost around Rs1 million to national exchequer in Switzerland. Then the team went to London on Feb 4, 2019 and then again on May 22, 2019 to fetch some assets details of Sharif family and others. Then it went to Dubai on June 30, 2019 to find some information about ex-finance minister Ishaq Dar and other Pakistanis who own properties in UAE, revealed the available details. Their 18-day trips to London and Dubai cost Rs2 million in a move to get some incriminating evidence against the said accused.

Four other trips were made by an ARU team on May 22, 2019, July 1, 2019, Feb 4, 2019 and Sep 23,2019 to London accordingly. They spent 13 days over there spending some Rs2.5 million in the United Kingdom, revealed the details. Another ARU team again left for Switzerland on Nov 11, 2018 and to China on Oct 29, 2018 by spending around one and a half weeks siphoning around Rs2 million.

The ARU officials were seeking information on Multan Metro Project and Bullet Train Project from Chinese authorities from Oct 29, 2018 to Nov 2, 2018 but no headway so far, informed officials said. The government allocated Rs16 million in 2018-19 and then Rs8 million in last fiscal year with additional amount of Rs7 million in accounts of staff salaries and their other expenditure in past seventeen months, added the officials.

The ARU and FBR were not in smooth communiqué since the Unit was trying to acquire huge data pertaining to overseas Pakistanis who otherwise claimed amnesty, an FBR official claimed. The Unit also planned to hire services of a few experts who were hired either within the country or in the UK, the US, Switzerland and UAE to trace looted money stashed in different continents. But it was not clear yet either these experts managed to trace something solid or not, an official of ARU told this correspondent. The official also revealed that FBR and FIA on request of ARU also provided information about some 120 key individuals who acquired assets abroad recently by violating national laws, he added, seeking anonymity.

The ARU officials held key meetings with many stakeholders five times in London on issue of luxurious Avenfield Apartment of Sharif family at Park Lane and Mayfair London, informed officials said. Either a matter of £190 million settlement, by a Pakistani businessman with UK National Crime Agency, was ARU’s success or not still remains a mystery. “We would not comment on after the federal cabinet sealed debate on this very matter,” a senior official said.

Senior officials namely Arif Rahim (ACU), Manzoor Kayani (Secretary ARU), Sikandar Gondal (ARU), Irfan Mangi (NAB), Dr Ashfaq Ahmed (FBR), Dr Rizwan (FBR), Barrister Zia (lawyer), etc were engaged by government for this task. Geo News spoke to four these officers who also admitted the fact that “no significant progress could be made to recover the looted money.”

The FBR was in coordination with OECD which has shared data of estimated 172,000 Pakistani nationals’ accounts with the tax authorities information involving $8.5 billion deposit. FIA and FBR (intelligence wing) also received details of around 21,000 Pakistani nationals who owned properties in heart of UAE, officials said. “Unit has had little role in receiving this information,” an FBR official claimed. The ARU has yet to receive “productive information” from five governments (US, UK, China, UAE & China) on cases link to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his sons, ex-president Asif Zardari, Omni Group chief A G Majeed, four top business men, four federal ministers of ruling party, he added seeking anonymity.

This correspondent on this matter sought comments of ARU head, Ministry of Interior, FIA and FBR but they did not respond the queries.