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Monday January 30, 2023

Shehbaz, Hamza acquitted in money-laundering case

Special Court Judge Ejaz Awan announced verdict in evening, which he had reserved earlier in day

October 13, 2022
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif (L) and former chief minister Punjab Hamza Shahbaz. — AFP/File
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif (L) and former chief minister Punjab Hamza Shahbaz. — AFP/File

LAHORE: A Special Central Court, Wednesday, acquitted Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his son Hamza Shehbaz in the Rs16 billion money laundering case.

Special Court Judge Ejaz Awan announced the verdict in the evening, which he had reserved earlier in the day. The trial of PM’s absconding son, Suleman Shehbaz, who is a co-accused in the case, will take place later after his surrender to the authorities.

The court had fixed almost eight hearings to indict Shehbaz Sharif and Hamza in the money-laundering case, but the process could not be completed due to different reasons, sometimes due to absence of the accused and sometimes due to unavailability of the record. Finally, the father-son duo was acquitted on Wednesday, as they had moved applications seeking acquittal before regular trial and indictment under Section 265-K of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).

The Section 265-K of the CrPC empowers the courts to acquit an accused anytime even prior to framing of a charge as well as hearing of the complainant. As the hearing commenced on Wednesday, separate applications were moved on behalf of Shehbaz Sharif and Hamza Shehbaz, seeking exemption from personal appearance, which was granted by the court.

Advocate Amjad Parvez, counsel for Shehbaz Sharif and Hamza, extended his arguments, saying that none of the witnesses recorded statement against his clients. The counsel alleged that the agency made a case with a malicious intent and the investigation officer of the case tried to twist the statements of witnesses. He argued that the prosecution failed to prove any allegation of bribery, kickbacks and proceeds of the crime against his clients.

However, FIA Prosecutor Farooq Bajwa told the court that the account of the suspect Gulzar Ahmed continued to be operated even after his death. The prosecutor informed the court that co-suspect Masroor Anwar had been operating the bank account of Shehbaz Sharif, adding that all benamidar accounts were operated by employees of the Ramzan Sugar Mills.

The judge asked the prosecutor if he had any evidence to corroborate his statement. Bajwa replied that the available records did not have any proof in that regard. However, the prosecutor asked for time to prove that there was a record of four remittances.

The prosecutor then started looking into the record. But, despite searching records for almost 20 minutes, he could not find the record of those four remittances which were reportedly made by Masroor Anwar after Gulzar’s death.

Then the judge directed the court staff to obtain the signatures of the prosecutor and investigation officer on the order sheet. After hearing arguments from both sides, the judge reserved the verdict and later announced it in the evening, and acquitted PM Shehbaz Sharif and his son Hamza Shehbaz.

During the previous hearing, the judge had asked the FIA prosecutor about the number of bank accounts owned by the late Malik Maqsood, also known as Maqsood chaprasi. The FIA prosecutor replied that the late Maqsood had eight bank accounts in his name. The prosecutor informed the court that no money was either directly deposited or withdrawn from the accounts of the suspects, including Shehbaz and Hamza. However, the prosecutor said that Hamza Shehbaz was the owner and shareholder of Ramzan Sugar Mills.

The judge asked what evidence was there to substantiate that the entire money dealing was being done at Hamza’s behest. “We do not have any such evidence,” the FIA prosecutor responded.

The prosecutor, however, added that the account holders had accepted the ownership of their accounts. On the other hand, the counsel for the accused maintained that account owners were ‘clueless’ about the depositor.

The FIA prosecutor informed the court that the account of the late employee Gulzar was also operated by the Ramzan Sugar Mills administration. The judge asked whether he could give the same statement in writing. To this, the FIA prosecutor said he was not authorised to submit a written statement.

The FIA had booked Shehbaz and his two sons, Hamza and Suleman, in November 2020 under sections 419, 420, 468, 471, 34 and 109 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, read with Section 3/4 of Anti-Money Laundering Act.

The FIA had alleged that the total deposits amounting to over Rs16 billion, from 2008 to 2018, were received in bank accounts of various low-wage employees of the Ramzan Sugar Mills Ltd (RSML), Al-Arabia Sugar Mills Ltd (ASML) and accounts of fake companies, set up and controlled by the Sharif Group.

“Rs3.7 billion were deposited in 2016-l7 in accounts of a peon, namely Malik Maqsood, working at the office of Managing Director Suleman Shehbaz at the Sharif Groups Corporate Office, Model Town, Lahore,” revealed the FIA findings.

It further said: “The low-wage employees of RSML/ASML admitted during the inquiry that the accounts were opened and operated for personal/ secret transactions of Suleman Shehbaz on the instructions of Muhammad Usman, CFO of the Sharif Group.

“Mushtaq Cheeniwala provided secret-ledgers as proof to show that the money from undisclosed safe of sugar deposited into these accounts is only Rs3.95 billion, implying therein that the source of remaining funds is extraneous to the sugar business and can best be explained by Shehbaz Sharif and his sons and RSML/ASML officers, who managed these accounts.

“Vouchers, cheques and money trails of deposits into these accounts have revealed that money was being deposited by various people at various affiliations, contractors, petroleum dealers, pharmaceutical vendors, flour and rice mills owners not related to the sugar business.”

The FIA claimed that the money received through such accounts and persons was received by Shehbaz Sharif or on his behalf. It further stated that during the probe, the father-son duo failed to provide money trail of Rs16 bn and did not answer questions in this regard.

However, Advocate Amjad Parvez, counsel for Shehbaz and Hamza, defended the case with the arguments that the FIA had narrated a story from Arabian Nights, which had nothing to do with reality. He said that none of the witnesses had anything to say against his clients with regard to bribery and kickbacks.

He said that the FIA had no evidence on paper related to proceeds of crime, and without proceeds of crime, the money-laundering act could not be applied. He stated that if an employee of a company, owned by a son, deposits any amount in the account of father and the amount in question was not proceed of crime, there was no case.

He said his client Shehbaz Sharif had declared each and every penny in his tax returns along with source of income and the same has been audited. He said they assisted the court that there was no evidence of corruption and kickbacks against his clients Shehbaz Sharif and Hamza Shehbaz.

He said to understand the case better, the judgment of the court is an important document which was issued on confirmation of pre-arrest bails of PM Shehbaz Sharif and his son Hamza Shehbaz. The special central court, in its detailed order of confirmation of pre-arrest bail of PM Shehbaz Sharif and Hamza Shehbaz, had stated in June: “Prima facie no evidence of corruption, misuse of authority and bribery” was so far found on record against the father-son duo in alleged money-laundering case against them. The order stated that the FIA had mala fide intentions, as it wanted to arrest the PM (Shehbaz] and Punjab CM [Hamza] after they secured bail in the National Accountability Bureau cases.”

The order further said the statements of 64 people recorded in the case, who had deposited the amount of Rs60.7 million, and not Rs16 billion, as claimed by the FIA. It added that in the statements of 64 depositors, none mentioned the names of PM Shehbaz Sharif and Hamza Shehbaz. “Moreover, the said statements do not spell out any bribery, kickbacks or commission”, the order said.

The court added that although Hamza Shehbaz was the CEO of the Ramzan Sugar Mills, the prosecution was unable to prove the accounts used to launder money were opened on his orders. Amjad said 95 per cent of transactions were conducted through proper banking channels and not a single penny had been transferred to Shehbaz and Hamza through the accounts, which the FIA claims were “benamidar” accounts.

Reacting to the court verdict, PM Shehbaz Sharif said that they stood vindicated before the court, the law and people despite facing the worst kind of political oppression and misuse of state machinery during the previous government that had held the institutions as hostage.

On his Twitter handle, the prime minister, referring to the verdict, said Allah Almighty had blessed them once more in the form of acquittal from the money-laundering case that had been based on falsehood, baseless accusation and political victimisation. The more they thanked Allah Almighty, the less it would be, he added.

Separately, Hamza Shehbaz said the court acquitted PM Shehbaz Sharif and him honourably in a false case of money laundering. He said that before Pakistani courts, the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency also gave a clean chit to PM Shehbaz. “The actual money launderer is Imran Niazi, who received funds through a ‘tea boy’. He is a certified foreign-funded [politician], who will now have to face the courts,” he added.

After the court verdict, the PMLN activists across country, especially in Lahore, celebrated acquittal of their leaders. They danced to the dhol beating and distributed sweets. They called it a victory of the truth.

Sabir Shah adds: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his son Hamza Shehbaz were acquitted in Rs16.3 billion money-laundering case after 47 long months by a special court. On June 5, 2022, the FIA had pleaded before a special court in Lahore that the agency wanted to arrest PM Shehbaz and Hamza, and they were later summoned by a court in Lahore on Sept 7 for their indictment in this case.

In Dec 2021, the FIA had submitted a challan against Shehbaz and Hamza before the special court for their alleged involvement in laundering an amount of Rs16 billion in a sugar scam.

The FIA report, submitted to the court, had contended: “The investigation team has detected 28 benami accounts of the Shehbaz family through which money laundering of Rs16.3 billion was committed during 2008-18. The FIA examined the money trail of 17,000 credit transactions.”  

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