PPP supremo Asif Ali Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur on Wednesday skipped a Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) hearing pertaining to a probe into 29 ‘benami’ accounts allegedly used to channel illicit funds.

A day after the Supreme Court ordered the names of all those connected to the accounts to be placed on the Exit Control List (ECL), the FIA constituted a Joint Investigation Team (JIT), headed by FIA Sindh chief Munir Ahmed Shaikh, to investigate the matter. The FIA had directed the duo to appear before the team today to record their statements and explain their position on the accounts and transactions.

Two junior lawyers appeared before the FIA authorities on behalf of Zardari and Talpur and submitted a written response seeking more time to provide information about the suspected transactions. It also said that neither of the siblings has a record of transactions made in 2014.

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The lawyers argued that both siblings are contesting the upcoming polls and are busy electioneering. The two will be able to reply to your questions after July 25, the lawyers said.

The lawyers pointed out that the duo had been summoned in 2018 for a case related to happenings in 2014. They added that forcing the two to engage in the case would be a violation of Articles 14 and 17 of the Constitution, as it would affect their election campaigns with the polls just two weeks away.

Meanwhile, a senior FIA official told Dawn on condition of anonymity that the agency was "not satisfied" with the reply submitted by Zardari and Talpur's lawyers. He said the response submitted was not a reply to FIA's summons but it merely sought additional time.

Zardari had not replied to another notice sent to him by the FIA earlier as well, the official said, adding that the agency might "take action" now.

Since 2015, the FIA has been probing suspicious transactions made through 29 ‘benami’ accounts — 16 of which were held in Summit Bank, eight in Sindh Bank and five in UBL.

Seven individuals, including Zardari and Talpur, were said to be involved in using those accounts for suspicious transactions which totalled Rs35 billion. The accounts were allegedly used to channel funds received through kickbacks.

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Zardari's close friend and Pakistan Stock Exchange Chairman Hussain Lawai, along with Summit Bank’s corporate unit head Taha Raza, have been taken into FIA custody in connection with the case.

29 ‘benami’ accounts

The FIA chief earlier said that the inquiry into the suspicious transactions was initiated in 2015 on a source report and, as a result, 29 ‘benami’ accounts were identified.

Of these, 16 were in Summit Bank, eight in Sindh Bank and five in UBL. Seven individuals were involved in suspicious transactions of Rs35bn, he added.

The investigation had revealed that Kiran Aman, the then operations manager of Summit Bank, had admitted and verified forged signatures of an account holder as genuine with mala fide intention.

Noreen Sultan, the then relations manager of the bank, had also admitted the forged signature of an account holder on an annexure for change of signature from the one found on the account holder's CNIC.

Adeel Shah Rashidi, the then branch manager of the bank, had also admitted to deliberately signing documents to approve the account, even though the bank's record showed that the account had, in fact, belonged to the allegedly Zardari-linked Omni Group.

Rashidi had later disclosed that the documents had been sent to the corporate department of the bank for approval and Taha Raza, the corporate unit head of the Summit Bank, had sent back the documents with remarks “referred by Hussain Lawai” with a directive to open the account.

Hence, it was established that the bankers had fraudulently opened fake/forged accounts fulfilling the codal formalities, the FIA DG had told the apex court during a hearing of the case.

With additional reporting by Imtiaz Ali in Karachi.