Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif on Sunday announced that he will take legal action against UK weekly newspaper The Mail for publishing a "fabricated and misleading story" which questions whether the former Punjab chief minister "stole British foreign aid money".
He accused the paper of publishing the story "on the behest of [Prime Minister] Imran Khan and [premier's aide] Shahzad Akbar" and said that he will initiate legal proceedings against the latter two as well.
Earlier, PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb, termed the report "baseless" and a "propaganda campaign".
The article, written by investigative journalist David Rose and quoting investigators and a "confidential investigation report", claims that the money "stolen" by the PML-N president, between the 2005 earthquake and 2012, also came from the UK's Department for International Development (DFID)-funded aid projects.
"For years he was feted as a Third World poster boy by Britain’s Department for International Development, which poured more than £500 million of UK taxpayers’ money into his province in the form of aid," says the report. "Last year, the head of DFID’s Pakistan office Joanna Rowley lauded his ‘dedication’."
"Yet, say investigators, all the time that DFID was heaping him and his government with praise and taxpayers’ cash, Shehbaz and his family were embezzling tens of millions of pounds of public money and laundering it in Britain," writes Rose in the report. "They are convinced that some of the allegedly stolen money came from DFID-funded aid projects."
Aurangzeb, via PML-N's Twitter account on Sunday, pointed out that the article does not mention any UK government document, while also questioning the credibility of the publication and the writer.
"Conspiratorial point of views and allegations have been published [...] news report does not mention any report by the UK government. It is fabricated, baseless and a pack of lies that has been invented by Imran Khan's conspiratorial mind," said Aurangzeb. She also held a press conference on the matter later in the day, where she said that the PML-N would sue the publication over the "planted, unsubstantiated" story.
"The news was published through a controversial journalist [who works for a] UK newspaper and is based in Lahore on Mr Imran's behest," claimed Aurangzeb. "Shehbaz Sharif spent every penny with honesty and transparently. The real news is that of Imran Niazi's 18 fake accounts that has evoked fear. The real and factual news is yet to come from Britain which concerns embezzlement of billions of dollars and money laundering."
Little substantial evidence: DFID
DFID in its rebuttal said The Mail on Sunday provides little substantial evidence to support its headline: 'Did the family of UK aid’s poster boy steal taxpayers’ cash meant for earthquake victims?'.
“The UK taxpayer got exactly what it paid for and helped the vulnerable victims of a devastating earthquake. We are confident our robust systems protected UK taxpayers from fraud,” said DFID quoting its response to the question asked in the headline.
It is pertinent to mention The Mail on Sunday has campaigned against Britain’s policy of spending 0.7 per cent of national income, currently about £14 billion a year, on foreign aid.
The only named official in The Mail article is Assets Recovery Unit Chief Shahzad Akbar. "Our investigations have already uncovered evidence of money-laundering on a vast scale, much of it conducted via the UK," Akbar is quoted as saying.
"We are working closely with the National Crime Agency and the Home Office. We are grateful for this assistance and we hope it will ensure that theft and money-laundering of this magnitude will never happen again."
Meanwhile, chief spokesperson for the PTI-led government, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, also held a press conference on Sunday following the article's publication and called it "an evidence of the corruption of Sharifs".
She claimed that since The Mail was a British publication, it was impartial and "free of pressure".
'Where, how the laundered funds were stolen'
Talking about where and how the laundered funds were stolen, the article claims one case has already come to court – "a guilty plea by Ikram Naveed, the former finance director of Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (Erra), which received £54 million from DFID between then and 2012, both for immediate relief and long-term schemes to rebuild victims’ lives".
Last year, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) chairman allowed the plea bargain of Naveed after he became approver against Imran Ali Yousuf, the son-in-law of Shahbaz Sharif.
NAB had told the court that Naveed had confessed to having paid around Rs130 million to Yousaf. It said Naveed had caused a Rs490 million loss to the national exchequer during his service in both companies.
"Naveed pleaded guilty and confessed last November to embezzling about £1.5 million from Erra during the period DFID was funding it, of which he passed on almost £1 million to Ali Imran [Yousaf]," says the article.
Naveed said half of this was transferred directly from Erra’s accounts – a claim The Mail said was confirmed by banking records. "Ali Imran [Shahbaz's son-in-law] has been summoned to answer questions from investigators, but has failed to appear – because he is in London, and refuses to speak to them. He did not respond to a request for comment from the MoS," says the report.
Alleged involvement of Shahbaz's family
The article quotes Shahbaz’s son Suleman as denying the allegations against him and his family, saying they were the product of a ‘political witch-hunt’ ordered by Prime Minister Imran Khan. "No allegation has been proven. There is no evidence of kickbacks," he is quoted as saying in the report.
According to the writer, The Mail was given "exclusive access" to some of the results of a high-level probe ordered by Prime Minister Imran.
"We were also able to interview key witnesses held on remand in jail, including a UK citizen Aftab Mehmood. He claims he laundered millions on behalf of Shahbaz’s family from a nondescript office in Birmingham – without attracting suspicion from Britain’s financial regulators, who inspected his books regularly," says the report.
A few 'revelations' by The Mail
- "Legal documents allege that Shahbaz’s son-in-law received about £1 million from a fund established to rebuild the lives of earthquake victims"
- "Stolen millions were laundered in Birmingham and then allegedly transferred to Shahbaz’s family’s accounts by UK branches of banks including Barclays and HSBC"
- "Britain’s National Crime Agency is working closely with Pakistani investigators and Home Secretary Sajid Javid is discussing the possible extradition of members of Shahbaz’s family who have taken refuge in London"
Demand of inquiry
According to the report, former International Development Secretary Priti Patel has demanded an inquiry, saying: "As someone who has served as Secretary of State at DFID, I find it shocking that British funds may have been abused, especially given the background of poverty in Pakistan which aid is meant to alleviate."
"We spend millions on anti-corruption initiatives and yet it seems clear that Britain is still a money-launderers’ paradise. It’s vital we now co-operate with the Pakistani investigation, to ensure those allegedly responsible come up against the full force of the law," she is quoted as saying in the report.
Growth in assets
"A confidential investigation report, seen by this newspaper, says the family was worth just £150,000 in 2003 but by 2018 their total assets had grown to about £200 million. Among other properties, Shahbaz owns a 53,000 sq ft palace in Lahore, which has its own large security force," says the The Mail article.
Quoting the "confidential report", the article says the "family’s legitimate income sources could not account for their riches. The money, the report says, was channelled from abroad – via several elaborate money-laundering schemes, in which Britain played a central role".
"The report claims laundered payments were made to Shahbaz’s children, his wife and his son-in-law Ali Imran. But it adds that Shahbaz ‘was the principal beneficiary of this money-laundering enterprise, by way of spending, acquisition of properties and their expansion into palatial houses where he lived'."
The article mentions three individuals, Manzoor Ahmed, Mehboob Ali, and Aftab Mehmood, as being used for "one of the most audacious schemes" said to be focused on Birmingham. "The report lists 202 ‘personal remittances’ from the UK and the United Arab Emirates into the bank accounts of Shahbaz’s wife, two sons and two daughters."
Narrating his meeting with Aftab Mehmood — the proprietor of Usman International, a money-changing firm in the Sparkbrook area of Birmingham — at Lahore’s city jail, David Rose writes: "He explained how the money-laundering worked. ‘I would just receive a fax from Pakistan with the names of the people I was to wire money to. I knew who they were: they were famous. It wasn’t my business to ask where the money came from. I simply transferred it, and I did it through the proper channels.'
"So where had this money come from? In fact, say investigators, it had been taken as kickbacks and ‘commissions’ from government-run projects and delivered by ‘cash boys’ in bulging sacks to the office of Mehmood’s Lahore contact, Shahed Rafiq. In jail, Rafiq confirmed this, adding: ‘I don’t know where the cash came from. It was just business.’
"The last part of the scheme was ingenious. How did Rafiq ensure that when Mehmood wired money to the accounts in Pakistan, he was not out of pocket? The answer is that Mehmood’s company in Birmingham also did legitimate money transfers and had thousands of clients who wanted to send money to relatives in Pakistan. If he was asked to send £100,000 to one of Shahbaz’s sons, he would simply wait until he had funds from UK customers who wanted to send equivalent sums to Pakistan.
"Then, instead of wiring the money to his customers’ relatives, it is claimed he would send it under the names of fake investors to Shahbaz’s family’s bank accounts. In Lahore, Rafiq would give the relatives the stolen money which had been brought by the cash boys," says the article.
The Mail quotes investigators as saying payments made by this method totalled £21 million – but were merely the tip of the iceberg.
"They say they have traced a further £9.1 million from ‘ghost’ investors who do not exist, and fake loans and investments in family companies. Their value, they claim, amounts to a further £160 million."