NOBODY can deny that large amounts of money have been “looted” from Pakistan and laundered into accounts and assets abroad. Likewise, nobody can deny that going after such funds and mounting an effort into retrieving them can be an important priority. But it is equally important to be mindful of what exactly it takes to identify such funds and get them restituted to the country. Such an effort can easily turn into a witch hunt, or a never ending saga that ultimately costs more than it actually yields in the form of restituted money. And more importantly still, such an effort can backfire if it is unsuccessful because the signal that will be sent will be the opposite of what the government intends. So if the PTI government is serious about mounting a strong effort to locate, seize and repatriate “looted” funds around the world, it should start by taking a good stock of what all is involved in the process and how far the last such effort launched by Pervez Musharraf actually went.
Finance Minister Asad Umar argues that much has changed from the early 2000s till now, including especially the passage of laws in many countries that facilitate the seizure of assets acquired from illicit funds. In the UK, for example, a new law has made it easy to furnish a politically exposed person with an “unexplained wealth order” (UWO) if they hold significant assets in the UK. That law is currently being tested in the courts and how easy it makes it to seize assets then arrange for their restitution is yet to be discovered. What is worth keeping in mind though is that the UK courts will decide whether to serve a UWO, and whether the replies submitted in response are satisfactory or not. This means the so-called Panama Papers case fought here in Pakistan’s Supreme Court might need to be fought all over again in a UK court if the government decides to move against properties owned by Nawaz Sharif using a UWO. The government should make a serious and sober effort to determine whether all the evidence in their possession will be sufficient to carry the day in a UK court before proceeding in the matter since a court defeat over there could be extremely embarrassing over here. The effort to recover looted money is worthwhile only if it is unambiguously successful.
Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2018