Bilawal, Shah ‘off the hook’ as NAB ordered to probe fake accounts case

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–CJP orders removal of PPP chairman, Sindh CM’s names from ECL, JIT report

–Orders accountability watchdog to wrap up investigation into mega money laundering scam within two months 

–Farooq Naek says Zardari, Talpur and Bilawal’s replies to JIT were not made part of report

–SECP says JIT did not give opportunity to ‘explain correct legal position’ on matter of acquisition of shares by Suroor Investment Ltd

 

ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court (SC) on Monday ordered the officials concerned to remove the names of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah from both the Exit Control List (ECL) and the joint investigation team’s report on a probe into the fake accounts case.

The top court also ordered that the case be forwarded to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and directed it to wrap up its investigation within two months.

“NAB should complete the investigation within two months,” the bench ordered, adding that the accountability watchdog can summon whoever it wishes. “NAB should conduct investigations in light of the JIT report and can probe Bilawal and Murad Shah independently,” the bench further said. “If after the investigations a reference can be formed, then it should be filed,” it added.

The court was hearing a suo motu case regarding a delay into a 2015 Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) probe into money laundering of billions of rupees via fake bank accounts. Both Bilawal and Shah were named in the report submitted to the SC last month by the JIT which was tasked to probe the case.

Several prominent people, including former president and PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari, his sister Faryal Talpur, former president of Summit Bank Hussain Lawai and Omni Group’s Anwar Majeed, were nominated in the case. Bahria Town owner Malik Riaz and his son-in-law Zain Malik are also being investigated in the matter.

‘WHAT DID BILAWAL DO?’

At the outset of the hearing on Monday, Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar grilled the state prosecutor over why the government had decided to place Bilawal on the no-fly list after the JIT recommended the placement of 172 people named in its report on the ECL.

“The JIT will have to clarify one thing: Why did it involve Bilawal in this matter?” Justice Nisar asked. “What did Bilawal do?”

“How does being a shareholder prove that Bilawal is part of a scandal?” “His [Bilawal’s] father and paternal aunt were running the businesses. At this moment, Bilawal is clean and innocent. Why has his name been included?” the top judge further asked.

“Bilawal is taking forward his mother’s political inheritance,” he added.

The chief justice wondered if the PPP chairman’s name had been included upon “someone’s directives”. He asked state prosecutor Faisal Siddiqui if the reason behind Bilawal’s inclusion in the investigation was to “defame someone”.

He also expressed annoyance at the placement of the Sindh chief minister’s name on the ECL.

Subsequently, the court ordered the removal of Bilawal and Shah’s names from the ECL and JIT report, and sent the case to NAB, directing it to conclude its investigation within two months.

The top judge also ordered to exclude the names of Farooq H Naek and Asim Mansoor, the attorney general’s brother, from the ECL.

Naek, who is representing Zardari in the case, stated, “Zardari and Talpur have no direct link with the allegations that are based on assumptions.”

“Zardari, Talpur and Bilawal’s replies to the JIT have not been made part of the report. This step by the JIT is based on ill-intentions and we reject the allegations,” Naek further said.

When the chief justice pointed out that there were “no ill-intentions” in the formation of the JIT, Naek regretted his comment.

At this, counsel Latif Khosa said, “A media trial is being conducted through the JIT report. Federal cabinet members are talking about the governor’s rule and the government is attempting to remove all other political parties.”

‘DEMOCRACY IS A BLESSING’:

However, CJP Nisar said, “Democracy is a blessing and we will not allow anyone to violate fundamental rights. Thank God elections took place as before the polls people kept saying they won’t happen. We will protect the constitution and that is our commitment to the people.”

The chief justice said “angels didn’t open the accounts” someone has to be held responsible for opening the fake accounts, therefore, the issue was being sent to NAB.

A nexus of politicians and a realtor has been uncovered in the fake accounts case, Justice Nisar said, vowing to bring the case to its logical conclusion.

The JIT report had earlier said that a close nexus had been found between a troika of Zardari Group, Omni Group and Bahria Town.

The CJP also observed that the fake accounts appeared to be connected to politicians, Bahria Town and Omni Group. He said the court had yet to see whether Omni Group had ties to politicians named in the JIT report, and if both were linked to Bahria Town as well.

Omni Group lawyer Munir Bhatti denied the existence of a nexus between the three different companies. He urged the bench to “allow him to show [the court] the real picture” and told the bench that Omni Group had bought the sugar mills in accordance with the law.

“But the mills were not available for free, were they?” the CJP asked. “The money came through the fake accounts.”

Bhatti said that his client had not done anything illegal by buying sugar mills on subsidies and added that the figures mentioned in the JIT report were not a single record.

“Do you know anything about layering, Mr Bhatti?” Justice Ijazul Ahsan, who is part of the bench hearing the case, asked the lawyer. Bhatti responded in the negative.

“Then why are you presenting arguments?” Justice Ahsan asked.

The chief justice said that the findings of the JIT report cannot be dismissed and the court has to examine the replies from the respondents. Bahria Town, Zain Malik, Zardari, Talpur, Anwar and Abdul Ghani Majeed, and the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) have all submitted their responses to the court.

Meanwhile, Anwar Majeed’s lawyer Shahid Hamid, who had also appeared before the court on Monday, said that instead of verifying the JIT report itself, the apex court should let the FIA determine its authenticity, since the latter had initially taken up the case. He urged the court to allow the companies, that are owned by the Omni Group but are not named in the JIT report, to continue functioning.

‘JIT DID NOT GIVE OPPORTUNITY TO EXPLAIN’:

The SECP, in its response, said that the JIT had not approached it for comment or given it an opportunity to “explain the correct legal position” on the matter of acquisition of shares of Arif Habib Bank and Atlas Bank by Suroor Investment Ltd.

“Therefore, it is of utmost importance to bring on the record the true legal position and important facts for assistance of this honourable court while considering the report of the JIT to the extent of the purported role of SECP in the scheme of arrangement of three banking companies,” it added.

The SECP informed the court of how the merger and acquisition took place, and all the laws and rules under which it took place.

It said it had followed up on the matter with all three banks involved in the M&A process for almost a year and a half, it said, adding that the proceedings under the Takeover Ordinance were only dropped after receipt of letters from the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) through which it was conclusively established that the transaction is a part of rehabilitation/scheme of arrangement for revival of sick banks, which will ultimately stand merged through an order of the SBP.

“Consquently, SBP approved the merger of the banks through which shareholders of Atlas Bank, My Bank and Arif Habib Bank were given shares of Summit Bank as per the swap ratio determined and approved by SBP.”

It asked that the JIT’s observations “be reconsidered and removed, being factually incorrect and legally misconceived”.