LAHORE: The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on Wednesday arrested former finance minister Miftah Ismail after the Islamabad High Court (IHC) rejected his request for an extension in his pre-arrest interim bail in a case pertaining to the awarding of a multi-billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) import contract.
According to an official notification, the bureau wanted Ismail in connection with an “inquiry against the authorities, including minister for petroleum and natural resources, the secretary concerned and others regarding [the] illegal award of an LNG terminal contract to a private company.
Former premier Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and ex-Pakistan State Oil (PSO) managing director Imranul Haq are also nominees in the case.
IHC Chief Justice Justice Athar Minallah, who was heading a two-judge bench that heard the former finance minister’s application, observed that the Supreme Court had set a standard for granting bail in NAB cases.
“The bail in NAB cases can only be given in cases of hardship,” Justice Minallah ruled, rejecting Ismail’s petition.
Soon after the verdict, Ismail and Haq were taken into custody by the NAB.
Earlier, at the beginning of the hearing, Justice Minallah had stated that previous judgements of the apex court existed on granting bail under the law of NAB which is why Ismail’s lawyer would have to convince the court that the bail extension being sought was inspired by “extreme hardship”.
“NAB wants to arrest my client due to political reasons,” Miftah’s counsel Haider Waheed answered, adding that there was no reason for the bureau to arrest his client as he had cooperated in the investigation.
The lawyer said that his client was working as a non-executive director of the Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) when the deal for the LNG supply was being finalised which meant that the initial negotiations to purchase LNG from Qatar had already been done by the time Ismail took charge of his office.
“The country did not import LNG at exorbitant rates during Ismail’s tenure,” Waheed argued.
“The national exchequer has suffered a loss of Rs1.54 billion till now due to the erroneous award of contract,” NAB prosecutor Sardar Muzaffar Abbasi said, adding that the then PML-N government had wanted to award the LNG terminal contract to a specific company.
Muzaffar informed the bench that former petroleum secretary Abid Saeed had become an approver in the case and that he had “revealed Miftah Ismail’s role in his statement”. The prosecutor then proceeded to read out Saeed’s testimony.
The investigation officer of the LNG case told the court that LNG rates were not compared with the market standards while awarding the contract.
After a break when arguments were resumed his arguments, Ismail’s lawyer said that NAB had earlier stated before the IHC that it did not seek Ismail’s arrest. “NAB should explain what new has transpired between then and today,” he added.
He said Ismail had been issued a call-up notice on July 15 while arrest warrants against him were issued on July 16.
“The arrest warrants were issued after Miftah Ismail’s leader announced protests,” Waheed said.
The IHC bench wondered whether the LNG plant should be shut down if the current rates are resulting in losses. The judges asked the investigation officer whether the PTI government had issued a statement supporting the closure of the LNG plant due to losses.
Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani, the other member of the bench, observed that Pakistan had suffered losses in international arbitration cases in the past as well.
He said the representatives of the incumbent government that are signing LNG agreements now would be seen as suspect in five years’ time.
“The government should perhaps take NOC (no-objection certificate) from NAB” prior to entering into such agreements, Justice Kayani remarked.
The court also inquired what steps the current government had taken to curb daily losses in the LNG plant.
“What the government has done is that it has given the contract on even higher rates [than earlier] now,” quipped Ismail’s lawyer.
After hearing all arguments, the IHC bench rejected Ismail and Haque’s bail applications.
Earlier on July 19, the Singh High Court (SHC) granted a seven-day protective bail to Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) stalwart shortly after the bureau arrested former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi in the said case. He had told the court that “the case was based in Islamabad so he needs time to contact the relevant court”.
An extension in bail period was also given to Ismail after his initial bail expired on July 26.
On Jan 2, the NAB Executive Board had authorised two investigations against Abbasi, being former minister for petroleum and natural resources — one for his alleged involvement in irregularities in LNG import and the other related to the appointment of Naeemuddin Khan as president of the Bank of Punjab.
The former prime minister had said several times in the recent past that he had not committed any illegality in the award of contracts for LNG import and, therefore, he could prove his innocence at any forum.
He was of the view that the import of LNG was the need of the hour in 2013 when the country was facing an acute shortage of gas.
In the case, not only Abbasi but former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was also accused of misusing authority by awarding the contract of LNG terminal to 15 companies of their choice.
It is the first NAB case against Abbasi, who had served as prime minister for almost a year after the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court on July 28, 2017.
Interestingly, during the previous PML-N government, the Karachi NAB in its regional board meeting had closed the inquiry against Khaqan Abbasi in December 2016. But the PTI opposed the decision and claimed that “the inquiry was stopped despite the fact that it had been proved that the contract had been awarded in a non-transparent manner”.
The then Karachi NAB director general had remarked in a meeting: “After exhaustive discussion, it has been decided that it is an ongoing project and any intervention by NAB at this juncture will jeopardise the efforts of the provision of LNG from the project of public/national importance. It is, therefore, decided [to close the] inquiry [at] our end.”