Malik Riaz finds little room to manoeuvre in Bahria Town Karachi case as SC tightens grip

Published October 4, 2018
Real estate baron Malik Riaz has fallen afoul of the Supreme Court over the land acquired for his Bahria Town Karachi project. — Reuters/File
Real estate baron Malik Riaz has fallen afoul of the Supreme Court over the land acquired for his Bahria Town Karachi project. — Reuters/File

The Supreme Court on Thursday grilled property tycoon Malik Riaz on how he came into the possession of "prime real estate" in the areas comprising Bahria Town Karachi in exchange for relatively worthless land in inaccessible areas.

Under Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar's stewardship, a five-member SC bench was reviewing petitions filed by Riaz's property empire — Bahria Town — and investors against the Supreme Court's ruling in a land allotment case which had deemed a massive land swap between Bahria Town Karachi and the Malir Development Authority (MDA) illegal.

"The MDA's prime real estate was taken in exchange for barren land alongside the Balochistan border," Justice Asif Saeed Khosa observed at one point. "The MDA was handed [subprime] land spoiled by mounds and hillocks [in return]."

The chief justice concurred with Justice Khosa's assessment, adding: "The Sindh government's land was given to Bahria through deceit. Gold was given in exchange for silver."

During the proceedings today, a private investor said that the court's decisions are affecting their investments.

"Bahria Town is a safe investment as compared to the rest of Karachi," he said, before a resident of the housing scheme added: "We are living comfortably in Bahria Town."

At this, the chief justice replied: "You are saying that we should not take action against Bahria no matter how much they have plundered. You are saying that we should forgive them."

Deliberating on the stance, Justice Khosa wondered if the court should make an exception for illegal work just because the development done on it was excellent.

"A [consolidated chunk of land] was taken from the MDA and in return it was given bits and pieces," the chief justice observed. He asked what losses the MDA had suffered in the controversial exchange, at which the MDA counsel simply replied that: "The MDA did not suffer any losses."

"Malir says it did not suffer any losses; the Sindh govt says it did not suffer any losses ... they are all in this together," Justice Nisar observed.

"Here we are thinking about giving the estate back to Malir, but Malir says 'we don't even want it'. Who is MDA's managing director? Why don't we send him to jail instead?" he wondered.

Riaz, meanwhile, argued that land swaps have been practiced in Sindh since 1982.

"Almost 70 such land swaps have taken place," he said. "Bahria swapped four villages with the MDA, for which Rs4 billion were deposited into the national treasury. Rs360 million were also deposited as payment for water bills."

Later, Bahria Town counsel Ali Zafar told the court that his client was in possession of 1,800 kanals of MDA land, and was willing to pay an additional Rs5bn to settle the matter.

However, the court was having none of it. The chief justice remarked that Pakistan needed Rs1.5 trillion to build dams, and asked Riaz if he could build one for the country. He also told the property tycoon that if he could not come up with at least a trillion rupees, the case would be discussed on its merits alone.

"Why should I pay Rs10 for something that is worth a rupee," Riaz pleaded, asking the court to reconsider. "I have already deposited Rs7bn in the court. I request the court to have mercy."

Riaz also argued against involving the National Accountability Bureau, claiming that "hundreds of thousands of people will get unemployed" if the project fell apart.

Zahid Bukhari, the counsel for Bahria Town investors, echoed Riaz's sentiments, saying: "If Bahria sinks, Pakistan sinks."

This remark considerably irked the chief justice, who advised Bukhari to think before he speaks.

"The judiciary is here to protect Pakistan," he stated.

"I was merely talking in economic terms," Bukhari clarified before the court recessed for a 30-minute break.

When the hearing resumed, the court had questions for the provincial government.

"The Sindh chief minister had no right to authorise the swap of MDA land," the chief justice remarked. "When the country's prime minister does not have the right to allot a shack to anyone, how did a chief minister exercise this right? This is why we say whatever is happening here [in Sindh] is not right."

The chief justice also wondered why Riaz was afraid of NAB proceedings.

"If others can face their cases in NAB, why can't Malik Riaz do the same?" he asked.

The case was later adjourned till next Thursday.

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