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Fleeting moments

January 18, 2021

Fortune diggers

Opinion

January 18, 2021

Any episode that creates suspense and thrill quickly grabs public attention. People glue themselves to various types of news media to know what will happen next.

In our case, Broadsheet and its chief, Kaveh Moussavi, have stolen the limelight. The din thus created is only rising. There are allegations and counter-allegations. The government construes what Moussavi says in its own way and the opposition in its own. Newspapers are replete with news of millions of dollars flying back and forth. Even calculators go bust when converting the fabulous amounts into the poor devalued rupee.

Two firms – Broadsheet and International Assets Recovery – are in the business of digging up plundered wealth and handing it over to those who hire them. The firms, let's call them ‘Diggers’ for brevity, were hired by NAB, which was created to unearth and repatriate plundered wealth stashed in safe havens abroad. The terms on which the Diggers were hired were to remain strictly confidential.

The nation was given the good news that soon the laundered wealth amounting to billions would be brought into the country’s coffers and the nation's fate would change forever. The country would not have to beg for foreign loans thereafter. Years went by waiting in hope for these better days.

However, those high hopes turned into desperation when it was recently revealed that the Diggers, instead of filling our kitty with the squirreled wealth, extorted millions of dollars in fees and fines. Reportedly, one of the Diggers was paid $1.5 million in 2008 for the services rendered; the detail of services not considered in public domain, as usual.

Broadsheet approached a court in the UK and obtained an edict in its favour under which it had to be paid a whopping sum of $28.7million as penalty for terminating its services, thus abrogating the contract. The federal cabinet has approved the payment. The taxpayers feel stricken and have been had because the Digger instead of digging the plundered wealth overseas and returning it to where it belonged, turned inward and emptied their pockets. Such events leave little doubt in public minds that when political elephants wrestle, they only crush the downtrodden.

Are we unlucky as a nation? Many international agreements and contracts we signed failed to mature and put us in trouble one way or another. Take Reko Diq, for instance. Various political leaders never tired of reminding the nation how much mineral wealth remained untapped in sparsely populated Balochistan.

In 1998, the Tethyan Copper Company (TCC) signed a contract with the Balochistan government, allowing the company to ‘build and operate a world class copper-gold open-pit mine at a cost of about $3.3 billion’ in the mining area leased to it. The progress on the project stalled when the government cancelled the lease agreement in 2011, terming it as ‘lease granted in a non-transparent manner’. In other words, deviously.

During the interim period, the Australian company claimed to have invested $220 million on arranging and installing the equipment in Reko Diq. It filed a case in the World Bank arbitration tribunal in 2012. The tribunal passed the ruling against Pakistan in 2017.

As reported, the World Bank arbitration tribunal calculated the loss incurred by the TCC by considering the profit the company would have likely earned over the period of 56 years of lease. To make up for TCC loss, the tribunal fixed a $5.97 billion award against Pakistan for cancelling the lease agreement. The company also sought attachment of the belongings of some Pakistani organisations.

In response, the Pakistan AG office approached the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes to counter the TCC claim, and pleaded for annulment of the claim. Instead, the ICSID granted a stay order until the next date of final hearing in May 2021. Until then, let’s pray and keep our fingers crossed.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Lahore. Email: [email protected]