LONDON: The United Kingdom’s super anti-corruption force National Crime Agency (NCA) told the Westminster Magistrates’ Court on 19 December 2019 that it needed Assets Freezing Orders (AFOs) to initiate a high-profile investigation into former Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his son Suleman Sharif to “prove or disprove” their alleged involvement in money-laundering, fraud, corrupt practices and misuse of public office for the purposes of money-laundering, according to official court papers available with this publication.
The revelations are contained in the court papers that have not been made public - till now. The News and Geo had reported in November last year that the NCA has ended a major money-laundering investigation into Shehbaz Sharif and his son Suleman without any further action and unfreezing of the assets after finding no evidence of criminal conduct, money-laundering and abuse of public office. It was then claimed by PM’s adviser on accountability Shehzad Akbar that Shehbaz Sharif was not part of the investigation because his name was not part of the Order that set aside the AFOs.
The new papers, being released by this publication, clearly demonstrated that the entire investigation was focused on Shehbaz Sharif and his son and their friend Zulfiqar Ahmed who had made a payment to Shehbaz Sharif’s lawyers at Carter Ruck. The NCA investigated the money trail of two flats owned by Shehbaz Sharif, his associated bank account and around £700,000 in Suleman’s accounts which the agency thought were laundered from Pakistan by Shehbaz Sharif.
Making an application before the judge at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court for the first time on December 19, 2019 to freeze five bank accounts under the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) 2002, the NCA’s senior investigations officer told the court in categorical terms that the anti-crime body had decided to investigate Shehbaz Sharif and his son Suleman over suspicions of “criminal conduct” of both Sharifs in Pakistan and that their UK funds were “suspected to derive from criminal conduct in Pakistan” and that there was an “overarching” investigation in Pakistan.
The NCA told the court: “This application is in respect of funds held in the name of, or associated to, Suleman Shahbaz Sharif and Shehbaz Sharif (officer note: frequently referred to as Shehbaz Sharif/Shahbaz Sharif).”
The accounts that were frozen included Shehbaz Sharif’s client account at Carter Ruck solicitors - the lawyers representing Shehbaz Sharif in defamation case against Daily Mail – and four other accounts linked to Suleman Shehbaz and Zulfiqar Ahmed.
The NCA said it suspected that the money that was transferred to Carter Ruck’s account was “in fact deemed to be associated to Suleman Sharif”. After the court granted AFOs to NCA, further steps were taken to seek access to Shehbaz Sharif’s accounts at Barclays Bank and Habib Bank’s London branch as part of the “Frozen Funds” investigation.
The NCA investigator said in the application to the court: “I suspect that the funds held in the above four accounts to be recoverable property. In brief I suspect that these funds represent, either in whole or in part, the proceeds of criminality of Shehbaz Sharif and his son Suleman Sharif, which was conducted in Pakistan. I suspect the criminal offences conducted to be that of abuse of position, money laundering and fraud” and that “the funds held within the three accounts for which this application is being made are derived from the alleged criminal conduct in Pakistan”.
The NCA told the court that “in allegedly moving criminal funds into the UK, Shehbaz Sharif and Suleman Sharif have committed offences contrary to s.327, s.328 and s.329 of the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) 2002.
The NCA application said that it would investigate Shehbaz Sharif and others under dual criminality rules because “if this conduct had taken place in the UK, it would also constitute criminal offending contrary to: (1)- Common Law: conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office; and conspiracy to cheat the public revenue; (2)- Proceeds of crime act 2002: section 327 - concealing criminal property; section 328 - arrangements in relation to criminal property; and Section 329 - acquisition, use and possession of criminal property; and (3)- Fraud Act 2006: section 2 - Fraud by False Representation; and Section 4 - Fraud by abuse of position.”
The NCA officer told the court it suspected that “the funds which are intended to be frozen are derived from this criminal conduct in Pakistan, namely accrued from the Sharif Group or by Shehbaz Sharif during his trine as Chief Minister of the Punjab. I suspect that this represents an active attempt by Shehbaz Sharif and Suleman Sharif to launder the proceeds of their criminality into the UK”.
In introducing to the court who Shehbaz Sharif and Suleman Sharif were and why it intended to investigate them for the alleged criminal conduct of money-laundering, the NCA explained to the judge that Shehbaz Sharif is a “Politically Exposed Person (PEP) and has held a series of political appointments in Pakistan from the early 90s onwards, including president of the PMLN - Nawaz, Chief Minister of Punjab, and leader of the opposition provincial assembly of the Punjab”.
The NCA said Suleman was Shehbaz’s son who was “currently resident in the UK” and he’s “alleged to be the CEO of the Sharif Group, an industrial group of companies based in Pakistan”.
The NCA application said: “Shehbaz Sharif is the brother of Nawaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan. On the 6th of July 2018, following a series of Pakistan based investigations, Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Safdar were convicted of corruption offences in relation to undeclared UK-based assets held through a series of companies. Nawaz Sharif has been previously disqualified for life from political office on the 28th July 2017. Nawaz Sharif was sentenced by the anti-corruption court to 10 years in prison, a fine of $10.6 million was levied against the Sharif family and the seizure of their Avenfield properties was ordered. Nawaz Sharif was further convicted in December 2018 relating to his unexplainable ownership of a steel mill in Saudi Arabia and sentenced to a further 7 years in prison.”
The NCA said: “Shehbaz Sharif is in-turn currently being investigated by law enforcement agencies in Pakistan relating to allegations of misuse of authority and money laundering. He is currently on court bail in relation to two cases.”
The NCA told the court that Shehbaz Sharif was “also the subject of main investigation in Pakistan relating to allegations of money-laundering and “Suleman Sharif is also the subject of an investigation in Pakistan relating to allegations of money-laundering” and “he is wanted, having been declared a proclaimed offender and having had arrest warrants, not backed for bail, issued against him by the Accountability Court of Pakistan.
The NCA explained to the court in its “grounds for suspicion” and “criminal conduct of Shehbaz Sharif in Pakistan” that on 11 December 2019 (eight days before it applied for Assets Freezing Orders), the NCA received a letter from the Assets Recovery Unit (ARU) of Pakistan. The NCA confirmed to the court that on Monday 9th December 2019 (10 days before the application at the court) its Operations Manager met in London with Mr Shahad Saleem, Director of NAB Lahore, who “gave a background to the investigation into Shehbaz Sharif and the wider family, suggesting that allegations of corruption, bribery and associated money-laundering have been persistent throughout their political prominence in the country” and that “Shahad Saleem indicated that investigator from the NAB would be happy to assist with any subsequent investigation”.
The ARU in a hearing related to the same case informed the court that it had learnt from the NCA on 7th December that monely laundering investigation Shehbaz Sharif will be started.
It’s pertinent to mention that the NCA relied heavily on Daily Mail’s article by David Rose dated 14 July 2019 which he had published after visiting Pakistan for several days where he was given access to detainees who allegedly did money-laundering for the Sharifs. David Rose’s visit took place exactly five months before the NCA applied for AFOs but both David Rose and Shahzad Akbar confirmed in the Daily Mail article that the NCA was working closely with the Pakistani authorities. Tellingly, Shahzad Akbar thanked the NCA for assistance and confirmed they were working “closely”.
David Rose had claimed: “Britain’s National Crime Agency is working closely with Pakistani investigators and Home Secretary Sajid Javid is discussing the possible extradition of members of Shahbaz’s family who have taken refuge in London.”
Shehzad Akbar had confirmed to David Rose in the same article: “We are working closely with the National Crime Agency and the Home Office. We are grateful for this assistance and we hope it will ensure that theft and money-laundering of this magnitude will never happen again.” The NCA told the court: “The ARU was created by PM Imran Khan to assist in the recovery of criminal assets to the state of Pakistan. This letter has confirmed that Shehbaz Sharif is currently under investigation by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Pakistan’s autonomous federal and anti-corruption agency and was granted bail by the Accountability Court on the 14th February 2019.”
Quoting the ARU’s letter, the NCA told the court that investigations into Shehbaz Sharif are “in relation to two cases involving the Ashiana Housing Scheme and the Ramzan Sugar Mills. The alleged criminality is that of misuse of authority and associated money-laundering”.
The NCA attached references of news articles in Daily Mail and several Pakistani English publications where allegations of corruption were made against Shehbaz Sharif and Suleman Sharif in order to establish before the judge that allegations of criminal conduct of Shehbaz Sharif were widespread for a sustained period.
The NCA presented as evidence the following newspaper headlines in support of its application: Daily Mail’s article of 14 July 2019 by David Rose into Shehbaz Sharif, ‘Did the family of Pakistani politician who has become the poster boy for British overseas aid STEAL funds meant for earthquake victims’; Daily Telegraph’s article of 24 December 2018, ‘Nawaz Sharif sentenced to seven years in prison in controversial corruption case’; Dawn’s 28th October 2019 article ‘Suleman Shahbaz declared proclaimed offender in money laundering case’; PM Imran Khan’s accountability adviser Shehzad Akbar’s December 5, 2019, allegations published in Express Tribune: Shehbaz’s wealth multiplied 70 times in 10 years, Shahebaz Sharif laundered billions of rupees through a fake company and that a sophisticated network of money-laundering was run under the patronage of Shehbaz Sharif’; and Samaa’s article of 14 March 2019, ‘Punjab MPAs are paid the least while Balochistan lawmakers earn the most’.
The NCA told the court that it has made enquiries to establish the exact nature of the various investigations into Shehbaz Sharif and Suleman Sharif in Pakistan and “Pakistan law enforcement have confirmed they are willing and able to assist in future investigations” about their “criminal conduct”.
The NCA said in the application that “It is alleged that Suleman Shehbaz and his brother Hamza and his father Shehbaz have illegally accumulated Rs. 3.3 billion equivalent to £16.1 million GBP”. Quoting the Dawn article, the NCA expanded that “a number of assets of Shehbaz and sons have been seized by the NAB in Pakistan, including “suspects shares amounting to Rs. 2 billion in 16 companies’’, equivalent to £9.8 million, Rs. 4.1 million held in three bank accounts (equal (£20,109) and “£4000 dollars in two different bank accounts of the suspect”. This is in addition to large swathes of land owned by Suleman.”
The NCA emphasized on the article written on the 15th July 2019 by journalist David Rose which alleged that Shahbaz Sharif and his sons stole DFID funding and laundered it back into the UK. The NCA application said that David Rose’s article, whilst needing to be treated with a degree of caution, details the alleged network of launderers used by Shehbaz Sharif and his family including individuals based in the UK”.
The NCA informed the court that its investigating through Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to “ascertain what, if, income has been declared by Shehbaz Sharif and Suleman Sharif in the UK” and anticipated that “neither have accrued any legitimate income in the UK which could be the source of these funds”.
The court papers show that the NCA had already conducted a thorough secret investigation into Shehbaz Sharif and his family before getting their assets frozen in December 2019 on suspicions that all their funds were proceeds of criminal money laundering.
The NCA told the court that it didn’t believe that Shehbaz Sharif, Suleman and his wife Zainab Sharif had any legitimate means of income therefore their monies were suspected.
The NCA produced visa applications of three of them and told the court that Shehbaz Sharif held a ten-year multiple entry visit visa to the UK, issued on the 20th April 2018 in Islamabad, and he was “not permitted to work in the UK whilst holding this type of visa”.
The NCA showed to the court part 4 of Shehbaz Sharif’s visa application form where Shehbaz Sharif had listed his employment as Chief Minister Punjab, listing a total monthly income of £15,300 GBP.
The NCA said that Punjab Chief Minister’s position “is the same position that the ARU allege he held whilst conducting criminality” and quoted ARU’s letter as saying that “The allegations relate to misuse of authority during his tenure as CM Punjab and the matter is being pursued by the NAB”.
The NCA told the court that Shehbaz Sharif’s “figure for total monthly income is also assessed to be inaccurate and produced Samaa’s article of March 2019 which suggested that at that time CM Punjab only received a monthly salary of PKR 84,000.
The NCA told the court that Suleman Sharif currently holds Tier 1 Entrepreneur Migrant Visa which was only issued on the 16 August 2019 and prior to that he was in the UK always on a visitor’s visa which meant that he was unable to work on accrue income and therefore unable to own assets or have funds in accounts made through legitimate means.
The NCA produced visa application record of Zainab Suleman, wife of Suleman Sharif, and told the court that the UK issued her a ten-year multiple entry visitor visa on 12 July 2018. The NCA said: “In this application form, she declared that the cost of her trip was £20K and that the source of these funds was ‘my husband is the CEO of Sharif Group of Companies, he can afford to incur my all expenditures while travelling’”.
Quoting the information provided by ARU, the NCA said that the “Ramzan Sugar Mills is under investigation by the NAB, an investigation in which Shehbaz Sharif is currently on bail, and for which Suleman Shehbaz has had arrest warrants issued”.
The NCA told the court that ARU’s letter “also alleges that criminal funds were laundered from Pakistan to Dubai and the UK through a series of fake transfers”.
The NCA investigator told the court: “Given the above and the fact that they have not been able to work legally in the UK, I suspect that the funds which this application relates are the proceeds of the criminality outlined and therefore constitute recoverable property. In summary, both Shehbaz Sharif and Suleman Sharif are currently being investigated by the NAB in relation to misuse of authority and associated money laundering offences.”
The NCA informed the judge that “this application is being made without notice to the respondents (Shehbaz Sharif and Suleman Sharif). I believe that providing notice of this application would lead to removal of the funds from the UK and therefore prejudice steps to subsequently forfeit these funds”.
The NCA informed the court why it’s working with the ARU on these cases. The NCA said: “The ARU was created by PM Imran Khan under the leadership of his accountability advisor, a barrier and member of the Pakistan cabinet.
The ARU was created to break down inter agency barriers, combine in one pace the discrete powers of the federal agencies; and, prioritize asset recovery in the interests of the govt of Pakistan. The unit is formed of representatives from the NAB, FIA, FBR and the State Bank of Pakistan.”
The NCA told the court that “there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the money held in the accounts is either recoverable property or is intended by any person for use in unlawful conduct”.
The NCA asked the court to allow the freezing of accounts for 12 months to start with as it will conduct investigations in Pakistan, UK and Dubai.
The NCA said: “This will ultimately allow us to prove or disprove if these funds, in whole or party, constitute recoverable property in that they are derived from criminal or intended for use in unlawful conduct.
The investigating agency said: “The freezing of these accounts for a period of 12 months is requested in order to conduct this investigation. Significant enquiries are required to be conducted in Pakistan and this will inestimably take some time. As outlined in the letter received from the ARU, it is alleged that money was laundered from Pakistan to the UK and Dubai. This means enquiries will likely need to be undertaken in Dubai, which again will inevitably lengthen the investigation.”
The NCA investigation continued into Shehbaz Sharif for nearly two years as the NCA went back nearly 15 years to investigate Shehbaz Sharif’s accounts and financial affairs and found no evidence of criminal conduct or fraud. The investigation was shut down in November 2021 after the NCA failed to establish that Shehbaz Sharif and his family were involved in any kind of wrongdoing, effectively giving Shehbaz Sharif a clean chit.
After investigation for nearly two years, the NCA dropped the case and released all assets of the Sharifs, after failing to prove that the cash and assets were proceeds of criminal money-laundering.
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