A sessions court on Thursday convicted Axact chief executive officer Shoaib Sheikh and 22 others in the fake degrees scam case, awarding them a total of 20 years imprisonment each.
District and Sessions Judge Islamabad Chaudhry Mumtaz Hussain, however, acquitted three co-accused in the case namely retired Lt Col Younas, retired Col Jamil and the wife of Shoaib Sheikh, Ayesha Shoaib, for want of evidence.
The judge also imposed a fine of Rs1.3 million on each of the convicts.
The accused were handed down sentences under various charges, amounting to a collective punishment of 20 years each. However, since all the sentences will run concurrently, the maximum time each convict would have to spend in jail is seven years.
The 23 convicts were sentenced to:
- Three years rigorous imprisonment (RI) along with a fine of Rs100,000 under Sections 419/109/34 of PPC
- Three years RI along with a fine of Rs200,000 under Sections 420/109/34 of PPC
- Seven years RI along with a fine of Rs500,000 under Sections 468/109/34 of PPC
- Seven years RI along with a fine of Rs500,000 under Sections 471/109/34 of PPC
The prosecution failed to prove the offences under Sections 36 and 37 of the Electronic Transaction Ordinance, 2010 and Section 4 of the Anti-Money Laundering Act 2010, hence the accused were acquitted of these charges.
All the convicts, including Sheikh, had earlier been released on bail and were not present in the court today when the judgement against them was announced. Since they did not turn up for the announcement of the verdict, the court cancelled their bails and issued non-bailable perpetual arrest warrants against them.
Sheikh, as well as the other convicts, were nominated in a First Information Report (FIR) lodged against them on June 7, 2015 under Sections 419, 420, 468, 471, 473, 109/34 of the Pakistan Penal Code and Section 4 of Anti-Money Laundering Act 2010.
The FIA maintained before the court that an inquiry dated May 19, 2015 was started against the respondent M/s Axact Ltd Islamabad region for preparing and selling degrees of fake online educational institutions with fake accreditation bodies and enticing innocent people through impersonation as student counsellors within Pakistan and abroad.
Consequently, a raid was conducted at Axact’s offices in Karachi's DHA. According to the petitioner, during an on-the-spot interview, the IT company's regional head Col (retd) Jameel Ahmad, Lt Col (retd) Muhammad Younas and other officials could not provide a plausible justification regarding their online fast-track prior learning assessment (PLA) education operation.
Statements of some of the employees clearly showed that their sale agents were impersonating highly qualified student counsellors working for the fraudulent, non-existent and fictitious educational institutes. They also pretended to be based in the USA as they used UAN numbers of the United States and persuaded prospective students to deposit huge amounts of money in the offshore accounts operated by Axact in lieu of online degrees/certificates/diplomas and attestation/legalisation from different government bodies, according to FIA.
Syed Ashfaq Naqvi, the special prosecutor for FIA, argued that the software company sold fictitious degrees to different people in Pakistan and abroad and brought a bad name to the country.
He said the FIA had conducted a thorough probe and after completing due procedure filed the challan against the convicts in the trial court.
Additional district and sessions judge (ADSJ) Pervaizul Qadir Memon had acquitted Sheikh and 27 others in the fake degrees case on October 31, 2016. Later the judge was sacked on February 15, 2018 due to his admission of receiving Rs5 million bribe for acquitting the accused.
However, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) in April this year had set aside the acquittal of Sheikh and others and remanded the case back to the sessions court for a retrial.
The 16-page judgement authored by IHC division bench comprising Justice Athar Minallah and Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb had declared that “the impugned judgement is vitiated on the sole ground of the pecuniary interest of the presiding judge against whom the charge of accepting illegal gratification stands established”.
The Axact saga
Axact first came into the limelight in 2015 when a New York Times report titled "Fake Diplomas, Real Cash: Pakistani Company Axact Reaps Millions" outlined how the "secretive Pakistani software company" had allegedly earned millions of dollars from scams involving fake degrees, non-existent online universities and manipulation of customers.
According to the report, Axact had created a series of fake websites involving “professors” and students who it said were in fact paid actors.
Umair Hamid, a vice president of Axact, was last year sentenced to 21 months in prison in the US for his role in the international diploma mill scheme. In addition to the prison term, Hamid, 31, from Karachi, was ordered to forfeit $5,303,020. He had pleaded guilty on April 6, 2017 to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
In January, Chief justice Mian Saqib Nisar had taken suo motu notice of the Axact fake degree scandal after international news reports said over 3,000 UK citizens had purchased fake degrees from Axact in 2013 and 2014.
That news had come just months after an in-depth investigation by Canada's national broadcaster uncovered that hundreds of people working in diverse fields across Canada possess bogus degrees issued by Axact.