ISLAMABAD: A recent Islamabad High Court (IHC) judgement has raised questions about the reliability of Pakistan’s criminal justice system after three accused men - including a former federal minister – were acquitted of corruption charges following the completion of their sentences.
According to the judgement authored by IHC Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani, the prosecution not only failed to “prove the entire case”, but the “chain of evidence is missing”, allowing “benefit of [the] doubt” to the accused persons.
All three accused – former religious affairs minister Hamid Saeed Kazmi, former Haj director general Rao Shakeel and former joint secretary of the religious affairs ministry, Aftabul Islam Raja – have been behind bars since 2011, when the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested them as the Supreme Court continued suo motu action in the Haj corruption case.
Between 2010 and 2012, the Haj corruption scandal rocked the national political scene and led to the departure of two ministers, Hamid Saeed Kazmi and Azam Swati, from the federal cabinet.
IHC judge threw out prosecution’s case after all suspects had served their sentences
Then-chief justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry had taken suo motu notice of complaints about Haj arrangements in 2010, especially after Saudi prince Bandar bin Khalid bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud wrote a letter to him highlighting details of dishonest dealings in hiring accommodation for pilgrims
After their arrest, the accused remained on post-arrest bail for some time, but were put behind bars again after the cancellation of their bail in 2013.
The trial court judge of the special FIA court (central) on June 3, 2016 sentenced all three to a total of 16 years for different offences. However, since the maximum punishment under these offences was six years in prison, the accused only had to complete four to five years in jail, since they were also entitled to avail certain remissions, announced by the president from time to time on national days and religious festivals.
After their convictions, the accused petitioned the IHC for their release on the grounds that they had already completed their sentences. The accused had also separately challenged their conviction.
The scandal surfaced in 2010 after Mr Swati, then-minister for science and technology, accused religious affairs minister Hamid Saeed Kazmi of corruption. The SC then took suo moto notice and the FIA was assigned to probe the allegations.
According to the charge sheet issued to Mr Kazmi, DG Haj Rao Shakeel and Raja Aftabul Islam were indicted for fraud, cheating, misuse of authority, and causing losses to the national exchequer and the public at large.
They were charged under sections 109, 409, 420, 468, 471 of Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and 5(2) 1947 of the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA).
Specifically, they were accused of hiring a substandard building on exorbitant rent to house pilgrims in Makkah and receiving kickbacks in the process.
The verdict issued by Justice Kayani on March 21, on the other hand, observed: “The entire case is based upon violation of Haj Policy 2010… and policy guidelines… which is not an offence under any law and the same does not fall within the definition of Sections 109, 409, 420, 468, 471 of PPC and 5(2) 1947 of PCA in any manner.”
The judgement also observes that the “charges [against the accused] have not been proved as the entire documentary evidence is inadmissible, no recovery of crime proceeds has been established by the investigation officers, no connection has been established through independent evidence that appellant (Kazmi and others) received any kickback, commission or cash favour from any owner of the 87 buildings hired in Makkah or Medina”.
“The prosecution has also failed to establish that the properties and assets of the appellants have been acquired from illegal means or from any amount received from Saudi Arabia,” the verdict said.
Concluding the case, the judgement pronounced: “All the appellants are hereby acquitted from the above referred charges.”
When the matter was pending before the SC, PML-N lawmaker Syed Imran Ahmed Shah in 2011 claimed that son of then-prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani had allegedly received a luxury bulletproof sports utility vehicle from one of the accused, Rao Shakeel.
However, in 2012, the same witness backtracked and Gillani was acquitted.
The SC’s suo moto was then disposed in December 2013 with directions to the FIA to thoroughly investigate the case and root out corruption from the pilgrimage in the future.
Sources privy to the investigation said that the main complainant in the case was a Saudi prince, and the investigation team had examined the case from all aspects.
They said there was sufficient material on record for a conviction from a trial court, and that FIA is considering appealing against the high court verdict before the apex court.
Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2017