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NAB snares Shahbaz as grilling turns into arrest

Updated October 06, 2018

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A contingent of police pictured outside the NAB office in Lahore on Friday.—Murtaza Ali / White Star
A contingent of police pictured outside the NAB office in Lahore on Friday.—Murtaza Ali / White Star

• Summons Saad Rafique and his brother on Oct 16
• Nawaz terms arrest political victimisation
• Ex-Punjab CM accused of favouritism in housing project

LAHORE: The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on Friday arrested Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) president Shahbaz Sharif in the Rs14 billion Ashiyana-i-Iqbal housing project scam, causing a blow to the party ahead of by-elections.

“Opposition leader in the National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif reached the NAB office at 2:50pm. A combined investigation team (CIT) quizzed him for an hour regarding his role in awarding contract to his ‘favourite firm’ in violation of laws in the Ashiyana-i-Iqbal housing project in Lahore launched by the Punjab Land Development Company (PLDC) in 2013-14 during his tenure as chief minister,” a source told Dawn.

Mr Sharif, he said, was also confronted with the statement of Fawad Hassan Fawad who apparently confessed to NAB that the contract of a company that qualified for it was cancelled at his (Shahbaz’s) behest.

Mr Fawad was implementation secretary to then chief minister Shahbaz Sharif in 2013. Before his arrest this year, Mr Fawad was principal secretary to the prime minister. Shahbaz Sharif’s ‘blue-eyed officer’ former Lahore Development Authority director general Ahad Khan Cheema has also been in jail on judicial custody in this case.

“Shahbaz Sharif clarified his position and dismissed the allegations in this regard,” the source said, adding that after an hour’s interrogation the investigators told Mr Sharif that NAB had enough evidence to take him into custody for further investigation into the case. “On this, Mr Sharif expressed his shock,” the source said.

Take a look: A timeline of developments in the Ashiana housing 'scam'

NAB later issued a statement only declaring “former Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif has been arrested in the Ashiyana-i-Iqbal housing scam and he will be presented before an accountability court on Saturday (today)”.

On Dawn’s query seeking details about grounds of his arrest, NAB spokesperson Nawazish Ali Asim said: “Grounds of arrest will be presented before the accountability court on Saturday.”

According to an official, Shahbaz Sharif had allegedly cancelled the award of the project’s contract to successful bidder M/s Chaudhry Latif and Sons and instead obliged M/s Lahore Casa Developers (JV) — a proxy group of M/s Paragon City (Pvt) Limited (which is stated to be developed by former railways minister Khawaja Saad Rafique) — thus causing millions of rupees of losses to the exchequer.

“Mr Shahbaz also allegedly directed the PLDC to assign the project to the Lahore Development Authority (LDA), resulting in award of contract to Lahore Casa Developers (JV), resulting in a loss of Rs715 million and ultimately failure of the project. Similarly, the former chief minister had also directed the PLDC to award consultancy services of the project to M/s Engineering Consultancy Services Punjab for Rs192m, whereas the actual cost was Rs35m as quoted by Nespak,” he said.

The official said Mr Fawad, who has been on judicial remand, had called the project director of Ashiyana-i-Iqbal housing scheme to his office and ‘threatened’ him with consequences and, under the garb of allegations of wrongdoing in the award of the contract to M/s Latif and Sons, forced him to cancel it.

Lahore Casa Developers owner Shahid Shafiq and four LDA officials have also been in jail on judicial custody in this case.

NAB summons for Khawaja brothers

In a related development, NAB also summoned the Khawaja brothers of the PML-N — Saad Rafique and Salman Rafique — to appear before it on Oct 16.

Saad Rafique is contesting by-poll from NA-131 against Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s Humayun Akhtar.

Punjab Information Minister Fayyazul Hasan Chohan said the names of the Khawaja brothers had been put on the Exit Control List as Paragon City was a beneficiary of the Ashiyana-i-Iqbal housing project, hinting their arrest. “More arrests will be made in the Ashiyana housing scam in coming days,” he said, adding that Mr Fawad would become an approver against Shahbaz Sharif (in this case).

Saad Rafique said: “We served the country and are getting this reward. I warn (Prime Minister) Imran Khan to stop this political witch-hunting as he will regret one day.”

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, however, denied that the names of the Khawaja brothers have been placed on the ECL. “No decision to place the names of Khawaja Saad Rafique and Salman Rafique has been taken. However, the government will help NAB in implementing its order as per law,” he tweeted.

NAB had launched investigation into the scam in November last. It had got details of the contract agreement between the PLDC and M/s Anhui Construction Engineering Group owned by director of Paragon Exchange Ali Sajjad, M/s Bismillah Engineering Company of CEO of Paragon City Nadeem Zia and M/s Sparco Group.

NAB probe history

NAB initiated the probe after receiving a number of complaints regarding ‘illegal deal’ involving 3,000 kanals of land between the PLDC and these companies. The PLDC had signed an agreement with Bismillah Engineering and Sparco for construction of 6,700 apartments on 1,000 kanals. In lieu of this construction, some 2,000 kanals of the government land was to be given to these two companies. These companies were to be given land corresponding to their construction work, whereas the entire piece of land was given in possession of these companies without getting any construction work done.

According to the Land Disposal Act, a land measuring beyond five-marla cannot be sold without auction. “But in this case gross violation has been committed as both companies were to deposit 20 per cent of the total value which they did not,” a source said.

The Punjab colonies department had also specifically maintained that if this land was not utilised for the scheme (Ashiyana-i-Iqbal) it would be surrendered back to the department as the government land could not be used for any other purpose. Only 200 apartments were reportedly built while the affected persons had paid four-year’s installments.

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leader Hamza Shahbaz addresses a press conference in Lahore on Friday.—INP
Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leader Hamza Shahbaz addresses a press conference in Lahore on Friday.—INP

PML-N reaction

The PML-N termed Shahbaz Sharif’s arrest ‘political victimisation’. A handful of PML-N workers held demonstrations outside the NAB office at Thokar Niaz Baig and Shahdara, condemning the arrest of their leader.

Ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif said the arrest of Shahbaz Sharif was regrettable and ridiculous. “Shahbaz Sharif being chief minister had set great examples of transparency and honesty in all projects. The PTI is responsible for this political victimisation. The PTI should be ready to reap what it is sowing today,” the elder Sharif warned.

Nawaz Sharif said the PTI government should not make Shahbaz victim of its own inefficiency. “All know that the PTI government is responsible for this revenge,” he added.

PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Auranzeb said NAB had summoned Shahbaz Sharif in the Saaf Pani Company case but arrested him in the Ashiyana housing scam. She said the PML-N president was arrested “without any evidence against him”. She said efforts were made to break the PML-N but it remained united, adding that party would announce its protest plan after consulting its allies.

Shahbaz Sharif’s son and opposition leader in the Punjab Assembly Hamza Shahbaz told a news conference that if this political victimisation continued, the PML-N would be on roads to fight this war.

“Before elections PML-N leaders workers are arrested. We had faced NAB in the Musharraf regime and we have courage to face it in Imran Niazi’s government,” he said, adding that his father was arrested in the case in which not a single rupee corruption had been proved.

“We are sitting in the national and provincial assemblies with a heavy heart,” Mr Hamza said, adding that the National Assembly’s session had been requisitioned to debate the arrest of Shahbaz Sharif.

Controversy surrounded over Mr Sharif’s arrest without NAB’s intimation to the National Assembly speaker. PML-N said NAB had violated rules and arrested a sitting MNA without approval of the speaker of the assembly.

However, NAB claimed that the speaker had been informed.

Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2018