Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar on Monday, while hearing a case pertaining to money laundering through fake bank accounts, suggested the formation of a Panama-style joint investigation team (JIT) to probe the allegations against former president Asif Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur.
A Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) JIT has been investigating a 2015 case regarding fake accounts and fictitious transactions conducted through 29 ‘benami’ accounts in Summit Bank, Sindh Bank and 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.
The siblings have failed to appear before the FIA JIT on multiple occasions, and have also petitioned the court to form a fresh JIT due to their reservations against the FIA's Najaf Mirza ─ whom Zardari earlier filed a case against ─ and Bashir Memon, who the former president accuses of holding a grudge against the PPP.
A three-judge bench headed by Justice Nisar today indicated that a fresh JIT would be formed in a later hearing.
The CJP, commenting on the matter, said that a JIT similar to the one constituted to probe corruption allegations against incarcerated former prime minister Nawaz Sharif would be set up to investigate the case.
FIA Director General Bashir Memon suggested that the JIT include officials from the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan, chartered accountants and other experts.
'Zardari, Talpur wrongly declared absconders'
The FIA in an interim charge sheet earlier submitted to a sessions court included Zardari and Talpur's names among 20 people absconding in a Rs4.14bn money laundering.
The interim charge sheet stated that opening of a bogus account, placement of illegitimate funds in it, layering of funds in different accounts and integration of funds in the shape of reporting of equity of Summit Bank to the SBP were major indicators of money laundering.
The brother-sister duo's lawyer Barrister Farooq H. Naek argued in court today that the FIA had termed them absconders during their respective election campaigns, which he claimed was tantamount to pre-poll rigging. He added that his clients were wrongly declared absconders by the court.
The CJP, responding to Naek, remarked: "It is a tradition in Pakistan for the losers to always blame others."
The top judge ordered Zardari and Talpur to allow themselves to be investigated by the FIA in order to prove their innocence. "If they are proven innocent, I will order a case to be registered against the FIA, Bashir Memon and the National Accountability Bureau," CJP Nisar added.
Naek said he would clarify everything before the court. "Then we will accept whatever orders the court gives," he said.
The lawyer claimed that the case was creating a negative impression of Pakistan abroad.
"Forget the impression, let's talk about the law," the CJP asserted. "The impression of Pakistan keeps changing."
Naek subsequently said he would stick to talking about the law.
"This case is being investigated since 2003 and the SC has ordered that no one should interfere in it," he said.
"The question is not whether any money was transferred or not, but whether any crime was committed or not," Naek argued.
"Before the election, you ordered that no one should be summoned before July 31. But the FIA summoned my clients on July 25 and then declared them absconding suspects."
"Asif Zardari and Faryal Talpur were contesting an election. How can they be declared absconding suspects?" Naek asked.
"This amounts to pre-poll rigging," he asserted.
"Should we then halt the investigation?" asked Justice Ijazul Ahsan.
"Not at all. No one can interfere in the investigation," Naek responded.
He contended that the investigation that Zardari and Talpur had been named in was being conducted under a law pertaining to public servants. However, he claimed, neither of the two was a public servant.
"By all means, continue investigating, but a negative impression should not be given," Naek said.
"Farooq Naek sahab, why are you worried? We won't allow anyone to live off of ill-gotten gains," the CJP assured the lawyer.
"If your clients are innocent and they have no involvement at all in this matter, then you will be exonerated," Justice Nisar said.
"You are aware of your client's relationship with Anwar Majeed," the judge observed, referring to the chairman of the Omni Group, and a close associate of Zardari.
"My clients are innocent," the lawyer maintained.
"Those who are guilty will be revealed, and we will see who they are," the CJP said.
FIA submits report
Later in the day, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) submitted a report in the apex court regarding the use of fake bank accounts to launder money.
According to the report, seven individuals and corporations were involved in opening 29 accounts in six different branches of three banks.
The report suggests that money was allegedly transferred from Zardari’s accounts to the fake accounts, however, the nature of Asif Ali Zardari and Faryal Talpur's crimes has not been ascertained yet.
Rs4.34 billion were transferred through a Summit Bank account while Rs3.9 billion were transferred to Omni group through other alleged fake bank accounts.
'All 29 accounts fake'
DG FIA Bashir Memon told the court today that the Financial Monitoring Unit had submitted a report regarding the 29 'benami' accounts, and that a first information report had been registered in the case.
In addition to the Zardari Group, money has been transferred from the accounts of various companies, Justice Ahsan observed.
Rs20.082 billion has been transferred from the accounts of the Omni Group, the DG FIA said.
The court asked why the FIA suspected the accounts were fake if the Omni Group had accepted the amount in question.
"Are all 29 accounts fake?" Justice Ahsan asked, to which the DG replied in the affirmative.
"You should have provided the details of all the accounts," the CJP said.
The DG FIA said he believed the amount transferred illegally amounted to greater than Rs35bn. "For this we need a comprehensive investigation," he added.
The CJP then turned his attention towards Omni Group Chairman Anwar Majeed, who was missing from court today.
Although Majeed had been summoned on Aug 13, his lawyer Raza Kazim said his client had been admitted to a hospital in London, where he is undergoing medical treatment.
"Whatever his condition, he must be presented in court," the CJP said, ordering that Majeed and his family members named in the case appear in court coming Monday.
The court maintained that if there were no cases against them, they should not be arrested .
Justice Nisar also asked about the whereabouts of Bahria Town Executive Director Zain Malik and what he had been suspected of.
The DG FIA responded that Malik had been suspected of collecting Rs7.2bn in fake accounts.
The court has summoned him to appear on August 19.
'Police terrorism needs to stop'
A Summit Bank employee also appeared in court today.
"The FIA is conducting an inquiry, but it is the police who have made my life miserable," she said.
"I've been fired from my job, and the police has raided my home," she said, adding that she had played no role apart from opening the account, and that the account had been operated by someone else.
The employee claimed she had been pressured by someone ─ without naming who ─ to give a statement in court of their choosing.
Sindh Inspector General Police (IGP) Amjad Saleemi, in the last hearing, had been directed by the court to ensure the appearance of all witnesses in court.
Saleemi, who appeared in court today, was ordered to investigate the claims of harassment and provide a report to the court on the matter.
The court also ordered the IGP to take action against the police officer responsible for the harassment, and separately ordered that Deputy Inspector General Mushtaq be separated from the inquiry.
"I am aware on which minister-to-be's directions these witnesses are being harassed," the CJP said. "It is even said that when the chief justice retires, he will also be taken care of."
"They ask with which authority the Supreme Court has taken notice of the Rs35bn. Is it possible that Rs35bn is looted and the Supreme Court does not lift a finger?" he asked.
"Naek sahab, this police terrorism needs to stop," the CJP said, adding, "We know who is behind this terrorism."
"Sindh has been turned into a police state," the CJP said. "As soon as an inquiry begins into an influential individual, the police terrorism starts."
The court ordered that all witnesses be given security and said that the conduct of Sindh Police official would be brought to the notice of the prime minister.
The case was adjourned until next Monday.