Secrecy of tax declarations

Do tax declarations of public officeholders and judges enjoy absolute confidentiality and secrecy?

A write-up published in an English daily on November 19, 2019 claimed that Babar Sattar, counsel for Justice Qazi Faez Isa of Supreme Court “raised questions and highlighted that for some years his client’s (Justice Faez Isa) wife has paid even more tax than Prime Minister Imran Khan. He mentioned Khan’s 2017’s annual tax return when he paid Rs103,763. The counsel argued before the Supreme Court that how can a person who himself pays that much tax could raise a finger at others”. If correct, this was a rather naïve argument — how can alleged lower payments of taxes by Imran Khan be a justification for anybody to conceal his/her true affairs of taxes?

Presumably inspired by the arguments of the counsel, the author of the write-up decided to carry out “a probe to determine how much tax Imran Khan has paid every year since he was registered as a taxpayer in Pakistan”. His enthusiastic probe was aimed at knowing: Whether he (Imran Khan) has declared the properties owned by his wives or not? The same question was raised by Justice Qazi Faez Isa in his letter to the president of Pakistan after a reference was filed against the SC judge on the advice of Prime Minister Khan”.

The writer then alleged that “a careful examination of last 25 years’ tax record of PTI chief Imran Khan shows that as against the principle set by the Prime Minister Office in a recent reference against the Supreme Court judge, the premier himself never declared the bank accounts or the foreign assets held by his children or wives even during the years corresponding to their married life”. Thereafter he gave details of the tax declarations of Premier Imran Khan from 1981 to 2017 alleging as under:

“Imran Khan married to Jemima Goldsmith on June 21, 1995. Both separated through a divorce on June 22, 2004. Under the principle defined by the Prime Minister Office, Imran Khan was supposed to declare all the bank accounts and foreign properties held in the name of Jemima Goldsmith in the tax years 1994-95 (Financial Year ending June 30, 1995) to the year 2003-04 (Financial Year ending June 30, 2004). However, a careful examination of his tax record of the said period, Imran Khan never declared any bank account or asset of Jemima Goldsmith held by her abroad. Not only this, Imran Khan has two sons Sulaiman (born 1996) and Kasim (born 1999) ... and PTI chief was also supposed to declare any bank accounts held by them or the assets in their names. However, Imran Khan never declared them in his tax returns.

Imran Khan announced his marriage with Reham Khan on January 6, 2015 and divorced her on October 30, 2015. So he was supposed to declare bank accounts and other assets in the name of Reham Khan, locally or abroad, in his annual Tax Returns for the tax years 2014-15 (Financial Year ending June 30, 2015) and 2015-16 (Financial Year ending June 30, 2016). He hasn’t.

Nobody should be above the law. Appropriate action should be taken against any offender for breach of law, after giving right of fair trial under Article 10A.

Imran Kham announced his marriage with Bushra Maneka on February 18, 2018. Under the principle defined by his office, he was supposed to declare assets in the name of Bushra Maneka in the annual tax returns and Wealth Statement for the tax year 2017-18 (Financial Year ending June 30, 2018). However, he only mentioned that as he was recently married (marriage took place some five months earlier) so he was not annexing her details”.

Without going into the merits or demerits of the tax declarations of Imran Khan or honourable judge of the Supreme Court, the important question that arises from the write-up is whether or not tax declarations of public officeholders and judges — in fact, all taxpayers — enjoy absolute “confidentiality” and “secrecy?”

Section 216(1) of the Income Tax Ordinance, 2001 says that all particulars contained in any statement made, return furnished, or accounts or documents produced or any evidence given, or affidavit or deposition made, in the course of any proceedings under this law or any record of any assessment proceedings or any proceedings related to recovery of a demand shall be confidential and no public servant save as provided in this Ordinance may disclose any such particulars. There are many exceptions to this rule as contained in sub-sections (3), (4) and (5) of section 216. For example, it is clearly provided in sub-section (5) that nothing contained in sub-section (1) of section 216 shall prevent the Board from publishing, with the prior approval of the federal government, any particulars filed by any taxpayer and sub-section (6) in categorical terms states: “Nothing contained in sub-section (1) shall prevent the Federal Government from publishing particulars and the amount of tax paid by a holder of a public office as defined in the National Accountability Bureau Ordinance, 1999 (XVIII of 1999).”

The declarations have to be provided by the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) as and when required by the Election Commission of Pakistan, State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) and Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in respect of any inquiry conducted by them under their respective laws. But these could not be given to any counsel or journalist as in this case if it is proved section 198 of the Income Tax Ordinance, 2001 comes into action that states:

198. Prosecution for unauthorised disclosure of information by a public servant.– A person who discloses any particulars in contravention of sub-section (1B) of section 107 or section 216 shall commit an offence punishable on conviction with a fine of not less than five hundred thousand rupees or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year, or both.

Did Babar Sattar and the author of the write-up obtain information of Imran Khan’s tax declarations legally? If it was already in public domain, published by FBR, ECP etc then no action is warranted otherwise it is a serious breach of law as quoted above. Unlawful acquisition of information, if really took place, by Babar Sattar or the author of write-up [How much tax paid by Imran in last 37 years? The News, November 19, 2019] can be taken note of by Supreme Court where the matter is sub-judice and details of Imran Khan’s taxes were allegedly quoted by the counsel.

FBR may also like to probe the matter to determine how information of last 37 years was obtained, especially for years when Imran Khan was not public officeholder and ECP never obtained any details for the said period. If breach is established, action is warranted under section 199 of the Income Tax Ordinance, 2001 against the offenders. This section reads as under:

199. Prosecution for abetment.– Where a person knowingly and willfully aids, abets, assists, incites or induces another person to commit an offence under this Ordinance, the first-mentioned person shall commit an offence punishable on conviction with a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, or both.

Nobody should be above the law. Appropriate action should be taken against any offender for breach of law, after giving right of fair trial under Article 10A of the Constitution.

The writers, lawyers and authors, are adjunct faculty at the Lahore University of management Sciences (LUMS)

Pakistan's tax net: Secrecy of declarations