ISLAMABAD: Pakistani officials used a secret counter-terrorism fund to buy wedding gifts, luxury carpets and gold jewellery for relatives of ministers and visiting dignitaries, according to documents seen by AFP.
The revelations cast a spotlight on high-level corruption in Pakistan as the impoverished but nuclear-armed country battles a surge in Taliban violence.
They concern the National Crisis Management Cell (NCMC) of Pakistan's interior ministry, formed in 2000 to coordinate between the country's intelligence agencies and federal and provincial governments on national security matters.
The US and other Western countries have poured billions of dollars into Pakistan since the 9/11 attacks of 2001 to help in its fight against Taliban and al Qaeda linked militants.
The NCMC received some 425 million rupees ($4.3 million) from Pakistani government coffers from 2009-2013, according to files obtained by Umar Cheema, an investigative journalist for Pakistani daily The News, and seen by AFP.
During that time the interior ministry was headed by Rehman Malik, a flamboyant loyalist of former president Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
Watches, carpets, gold, goats
Many of the documents deal with payments to intelligence sources, routine maintenance of vehicles and overtime for employees.
But the files also include receipts for gifts for US and British embassy officials, as well as flowers and sweets for journalists.
One receipt for 70,000 rupees ($700) is itemised as a “Pair of wrist watches for marriage of nephew of minister for interior”.
The documents show that on a trip to Rome for an Interpol conference in November 2012, Malik took a necklace, wooden tables and a TouchMate tablet computer as gifts.
The counter-terror fund was also used to buy three rugs as wedding gifts for the son of former prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf early last year.
A set of 21-carat gold jewellery worth $3,000 was bought for one unnamed individual, while another was the recipient of a $1,500 set.
A handicrafts store in Islamabad was paid some $23,000 in December 2012 for carpets and crafts given to local officials and delegations from the EU, Iran and India.
Among the more bizarre items paid for from the fund was the $800 cost of four sacrificial goats, plus butchery costs, listed as “stabbing charges”, for the festival of Eid-ul-Azha.
Alms to the poor and donations of sweets, flowers, and cash to a local Sufi saint were also made from the fund in 2012, the documents show.
'You know how Pakistan works'
Pakistan's present government, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has ordered an audit of the interior ministry accounts from 2010-2013.
Ministry spokesman Danyal Gilani confirmed the audit was ongoing but declined to indicate a timeframe for its completion.
The director general of the NCMC, Tariq Lodhi, did not respond to repeated attempts to seek comment. Upon coming to power in June last year, Sharif's government abolished secret funds in 16 ministries in an effort to curb corruption and rein in spending.
Malik, who as minister was famed for his expensive ties and purple hair-dye, mounted a firm defence of his conduct on Twitter, denying he had used the fund and saying it was “never under the control of the minister”.
Asked why some receipts contained hand-written instructions saying they were the minister's directives, Malik told AFP: “You know how Pakistan works.
Just because it mentions me does not mean I personally authorised the payments.”In a tweet, he said using funds to entertain dignitaries and offer gifts was “routine for 15 yrs”.
But Moinuddin Haider, who served as interior minister from 1999 to 2002, said the NCMC fund was not set up to pay for “gifts abroad”.
“The purpose of these funds was to establish offices in the provinces, primarily to be spent on communications equipment and data analysis,” he told AFP.
Cheema, who won the Daniel Pearl journalism fellowship in 2008, said the affair was indicative of how officials had turned the national terror crisis, which has killed thousands of people across the country since 2007, to their own benefit.
“This abuse clearly explains how our leaders convert a tragedy into an opportunity for personal gains,” he said.
“If history is any guide it's not going to be resolved nor will the abolition of secret funds lead to any corrective measures.” Ayesha Siddiqa, a security analyst, termed the use of the funds “sad”, but said a lack of clear counter-terrorism policy direction by successive governments was also to blame, as well as the way Pakistan's bureaucracy works.
“There is also this problem with the government where if a department gets funds you're in a hurry to spend them, because if the funds lapse they will be deducted the next year and the department will be reprimanded,” she said.