School for scandal


Pakistani style



In the face of the reportedly crushing evidence painstakingly collected over some ten days by official bloodhounds, the CEO of the much savaged Axact software company (exact ‘wares’ still only partly known) was at last shown handcuffed on television, reflecting his new found status as a forced formal guest of the government of Pakistan. The extravagant swagger was gone and the face had the dazed and vulnerable look of those left in the lurch by powerful fair weather friends and the former scraping and bowing sycophants. What was also nauseating was the unfettered glee displayed by some of the rival television channels, living precariously in glass houses themselves, over the Axact chief’s remand by the Federal Investigating Agency (FIA) and the First Information Report (FIR) lodged against him.

The double standards in our society are obvious at every stage. There is this model, (wonder why some are called ‘supermodels’: for their Hellenic beauty, massive remuneration, closeness to many influentials, or simply that they are from the planet Krypton or lost Atlantis), who was nabbed in the act of laundering over half a million US dollars in a sensational ongoing case. But instead of showing any signs of remorse or of pining away in our sub-human prison system, she is as fresh as a daisy on her court appearances, complete with ‘war paint’ and a different eye-catching attire every time. The food served to her is reportedly brought from five star establishments, though one cannot say for sure if they also have any Michelin stars! Many names of the rich and powerful (read our top politicians) have been bruited about as the sugar-daddies as well as the patrons of her money laundering schemes, for whom she allegedly undertook 34 foreign trips alone this year, before being caught red-handed with the greenback. No doubt the friends in high places (and one really means high) would be manipulating and pulling strings from a safe distance to keep her life on the familiar civilised level and to end her incarceration.

No doubt the friends in high places (and one really means high) would be manipulating and pulling strings from a safe distance to keep her life on the familiar civilised level and to end her incarceration

And what of our political, business and bureaucratic elite, who at any given moment and as a routine matter, are found enmeshed in a tangle of cases, ranging from murder to corruption, embezzlement, tax evasion and robbing the poor to feed the rich(the family comes first), but somehow always manage to escape the retribution that they richly deserve.

Like a bolt from the blue, the Axact scandal burst upon the poor (both literally and figuratively) Pakistani people, already bowed down under the shock of the Karachi Safoora bus carnage and the earlier targeted killing of an audacious female liberal activist, also in the mega-city of darkness. Nearly everyone here has become nervously accustomed to the regular dose of a horror a day, but the oddity or barbarity of each individual offence never fails to astonish. The alleged mass sale over many years of thousands of fake degrees, in reality mere scraps of paper or ornamental ‘wall decorations’, by a Pakistani business (one uses the word loosely) by employing the classic deception tactics of con men, has also sent shock waves in the countries where the ‘instant’ degree wannabes are to be found, the USA, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Some of the victims were unwittingly duped, while many others must have been willing accomplices in the quest for these ‘instant’ degrees to further their professional careers.

In the ‘mother country’ however, things initially seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace. Since the story broke, the concerned government functionaries, true to form, let off a lot of hot air and indulged in much idle talk. There was a good deal of running around in circles. The Interior minister and the ministry of foreign affairs both adopted a cautious wait and see attitude, pending the outcome of the preliminary investigations. The FIA and the Federal Board of Revenue were belatedly brought into the picture, while the Customs and even the Securities and Exchange Commission joined the merry fray. There was also talk of involving the FBI, Interpol and the UK watchdogs in the investigation. But until the recent remand of the CEO and the registration of the FIR, it all seemed to be a case of frenzied activity but little concrete results. As with every high-profile event in Pakistan, the whole issue still remains shrouded in mystery, an enigma of a ‘wheels within wheels’ complexity.

No wonder the local conspiracy theorists, in what might be termed the global capital of this imaginative species, are working like beavers at their favourite pastime. The little matter of the company’s sister concern, the still to be launched television channel, Bol, monopolises their narrative. Who was the actual foster father of this newly born baby, and had lured the top men from the media by fabulous mouth watering offers? How could the Axact chief appear on various television channels, and with a straight face boldly rebut the charges, despite all the damning evidence? Why did he delay in assisting the police with their inquiries, as the expression goes? Why was a person who had brought infamy to the country not placed immediately on the Exit Control List?

But one reason the government was treading softly in the affair might have been the curious cast of characters responsible for breaking the story and then adding their own strands to it. It is indeed a volatile mix. The credibility of the New York Times, its Pakistan-specific investigative reporter Declan Walsh, blogger Raza Rumi and chief whistle blower Yasir Jamshed, a company ex-employee is somewhat in doubt, due to the bias (euphemistically speaking) of the two earlier named, and in the case of the ex-employee, his decision to present Declan Walsh and the openly hostile New York Times with the evidence, instead of someone nearer home, if you get what I mean. Hence, possible vested interests, oblique agendas and double standards need to be kept in mind. Especially the double standards bit!

This latest episode made some people hark back to the fate of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) and its legendary founder, the late Agha Hasan Abedi. The visionary banker and philanthropist was crucified in his lifetime for alleged financial crimes, his worldwide banking empire dismantled and forced into liquidation. And yet, today, one finds most of the financial heavyweights of the world, names like JP Morgan Chase, Barclays Bank, Citicorp, Royal Bank of Scotland, Bank of America and Deutsche Bank, guilty of far graver crimes, including blatantly rigging of that most sacrosanct of world currency exchange rates, the London Inter-bank Offered Rate (LIBOR). But they all manage to escape with penalties of a few billion dollars for years of malpractices in a global currency market of US$5.3 trillions daily! And this is besides their ‘rogue traders’ who periodically go on mad sprees causing shattering losses to investors, big and small, with their bottomless greed for more profits and a personal rapacity. Or the ruthless Wall Street investment bankers, the ‘fat cats with jewelled claws’ who embezzle and mismanage affairs and then get government bailouts from taxpayers money, while not foregoing their multi-million dollar bonuses. It has indeed turned into a world where ‘wealth accumulates and men decay’.

In the present instance, a long drawn court battle, both here (perhaps only shadow-boxing due to legal loopholes and the power and influence of those in the loop all along) and abroad (ultimately, judgments by foreign courts are not practically easily enforceable), appears to be in the offing, with damaging new revelations being periodically released by Declan Wash and the company’s ex-employees. According to a recent newspaper report, a ‘US court in New Jersey has awarded $690,000 in damages against Axact filed by Student’s Network Resources Inc, Student Network Resources’ and (inevitably, given the surname), a ‘Ross Cohen, who had filed counterclaims in response to a suit by Axact against their research websites’.

The only positive aspect of the scandal would be the welcome exorcism of all the senior journalists and anchors who had besmirched their reputations by selling their loyalties to the highest bidder in indecent haste

The Belfort School and Belfort University case (2009) showed that it is extremely difficult to establish a ‘smoking gun’ link with the Axact setup in these fake diploma cases. In this particular case, a court in Michigan awarded US $22.7 million to 30,000 fake degree complainants in 2012, but the cat could not be ‘belled’, with the matter still awaiting closure. However, the predatory US attorneys will no doubt be baying for blood like a pack of famished hounds.

The only positive aspect of the scandal would be the welcome exorcism of all the senior journalists and anchors who had besmirched their reputations by selling their loyalties to the highest bidder in indecent haste. These self-proclaimed ‘moralists’ were supposed to be the role models for lesser mortals, but Pied Piper-like, they have apparently led so many of the smaller fry to certain professional ruin. Hence, they are doubly guilty. No other channel or newspaper should entertain them after their recent display of pettiness and greed. For some of them, who were often in the news for the wrong reasons even before this episode, it would be good riddance indeed. But as everyone knows, this is mere wishful thinking. These big names (but small minds) would soon be snapped up by some opportunistic lesser known channels, which are at this very moment vigorously engaged in demonising them all. And the school for scandal (Pakistan style) will resurface in some other form in the future.

John Steinbeck, the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, remarks in his novel, Cannery Row: ‘It has always seemed strange to me…the things that we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitant of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second’.

He wrote of the general moral decline, ‘we value virtue, but do not discuss it. The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar get little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp, the cheat’.

And of the latter, we seem to have an endless supply, in politics, in business and in other professions, which shall (wisely) remain nameless!