LAHORE: The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) arrested former head of the Lahore Development Authority Ahad Khan Cheema on Wednesday to question him about his alleged involvement in Lahore’s Ashiyana-i-Iqbal Housing Society scam, causing quite a stir in the Punjab chief minister’s camp.

Mr Cheema, who currently heads two power companies in the Punjab, was arrested from his Gulberg office after he failed to comply with the NAB’s summons. His arrest comes on the heels of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s and Secretary to the Prime Minister Fawad Hassan Fawad’s appearance before NAB. Mr Fawad is considered to be close to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Wednesday’s arrest of an officer considered close to the chief minister has stoked all kinds of rumours about a possible storm brewing for the younger Sharif, as Mr Cheema may become an approver in this investigation.

“We have arrested Mr Cheema after he failed to appear before a combined investigation team of NAB in connection with investigation in the Ashiyana-i-Iqbal Housing Society scam. In the last notice he was warned that failing to comply with it may entail penal consequences under Section 2 of the National Accountability Ordinance but he did not bother to do so,” a NAB official told Dawn. He said Mr Cheema would be presented before an accountability court on Thursday (today) to obtain his physical remand.

The arrest drew sharp criticism from the provincial government, whose spokesperson Malik Muhammad Ahmad said the NAB had transgressed its powers by arresting Mr Cheema. “There are countless examples in which the NAB has not arrested those who did not appear on summons. The NAB did not follow lawful procedure in arresting a senior government official that is a matter of great concern for the Punjab government.”

In the former LDA chief’s defence, he said: “Mr Cheema is an honest and dutiful officer and action against him by NAB is not justified.”

In their last notice, the NAB had asked Mr Cheema to provide a detailed statement regarding the award of the contract for the Ashiana-i-Iqbal Housing Project, which was entrusted to him by the chief minister, and the purchase of 32 kanals of land at Mouza Tedha Cantt in Lahore.

“Mr Cheema’s reluctance to cooperate with the CIT shows that he was deliberately doing so at the behest of his boss. There were also reports that he was asked to leave the country to evade the investigation, therefore, the NAB rushed to arrest him without registering an FIR,” a source said.

Under the law, if a suspect does not cooperate with the NAB in an investigation and holds evidence that they may be tampered with, the Bureau can arrest him without first obtaining an FIR.

The NAB had already questioned CM Sharif last month about why the government had cancelled the award of the project’s contract to a successful bidder, M/S Chaudhry Latif and Sons, and instead given it to M/S Lahore Casa Developers (JV) – a proxy group of M/S Paragon City (Pvt) Limited (which is stated to be developed by Railways Minister Saad Rafique) – hence causing a loss of millions of rupees to the exchequer.

The NAB said that the chief minister had allegedly directed the PLDC to assign the project to the LDA, resulting in an award of contract to M/S Lahore Casa Developers (JV), causing a loss of Rs715m and dooming the project to failure. The chief minister had allegedly directed the PLDC to award the contract for consultancy services of the project to M/S Engineering Consultancy Services Punjab for Rs192m, whereas the actual cost had turned out to be Rs35m as was quoted by Nespak.

Mr Fawad, too, appears to be in hot waters in this case. He was the secretary for implementation to CM Sharif in 2013 when he allegedly pressed the PLDC chief executive officer to cancel the contract of M/S Latif and Sons and award it to another firm. He had allegedly called the project director of the Ashiana-i-Iqbal to his office and ‘threatened’ him (with dire consequences), and using the pretext of accusations of misappropriation in the award of the contract to M/S Latif and Sons, he apparently forced him to cancel it.

While talking to journalists on Wednesday, CM Sharif said: “The NAB should nab the corrupt. I wish the NAB could ask us about the savings of billions of rupees we made in numerous projects during the last eight years or so.” He said they had sent the records which the NAB had sought in different inquiries.

The NAB decided to initiate a probe into the housing society after receiving a number of complaints regarding an ‘illegal deal’ involving 3,000 kanals of government land between the PLDC and the aforementioned companies.

In addition to the PLDC and the LDA, the NAB is also probing other contracting parties – M/S Anhui Construction Engineering Group owned by Paragon Exchange director Ali Sajjad, M/S Bismillah Engineering Company, owned Nadeem Zia, chief executive of Paragon City, and M/S Sparco Group.

The PLDC had reportedly signed an agreement with Bismillah Engineering and Sparco for the construction of 6,700 apartments on 1,000 kanals. In lieu of this construction, some 2,000 kanals were to be given to these two companies, which were to be given land corresponding to their construction work. The land was given to these companies without them having done any construction work at all.

According to the Land Disposal Act, land measuring beyond five marlas could not be sold without auction. “But in his case, gross violation has been committed as both companies were supposed to deposit 20 per cent of the total value which they did not,” a source said, adding that the Colonies Department of the Punjab government had also specifically maintained that if this land was not utilised for the said scheme, (Ashiana-i-Iqbal) it would be surrendered back to the department as government land could not be used for any other purpose. He said only 200 apartments had been built so far while the affected persons had paid four-year’s instalments.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2018