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ISLAMABAD: A report in a British newspaper alleging that Opposition Leader in National Assembly and PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif, during his tenure as Punjab chief minister, had embezzled the UK grant for relief activities after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan has stirred a new controversy in the country already gripped by the judicial and political crises.

The news published in The Mail on Sunday under the headline “Did the family of Pakistani politician who has become the poster boy for British overseas aid steal funds meant for earthquake victims?” was broken in Pakistan by Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Information Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan during a press conference at her hometown Sialkot on Sunday.

The report has alleged that Mr Sharif, with the help of his family members and some close confidants, had embezzled and laundered the money out of £500million UK foreign aid that had been poured into Punjab for relief activities after the massive earthquake that hit the country in 2005.

Refuting the allegations, Mr Sharif declared that he would sue the British newspaper for publishing a “fabricated and misleading story”.

He also announced that he would initiate legal proceedings against Prime Minister Imran Khan and head of the recently-formed Assets Recovery Unit (ARU) Shahzad Akbar, alleging that the newspaper had published the report at their behest.

PML-N president to sue newspaper & Imran, PM’s aide

“The fabricated and misleading story was published at the behest of Imran Khan and Shahzad Akbar. We will also launch legal proceedings against them. Btw IK has yet to respond to three such cases I filed against him for defamation,” wrote Mr Sharif on his official social media account on Twitter.

In response to Dr Awan’s news conference, information secretary of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Marriyum Aurangzeb also held a presser in Islamabad and released a picture showing Prime Minister Khan meeting David Rose, the author of the controversial news report, at his Banigala residence and claimed that the story had been “fabricated” during this meeting.

The news report was also rebutted by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) which said, “The Mail on Sunday provides little substantial evidence to support its headline.”

However, David Rose in a tweet said the “PMLN trolls in Pakistan are posting a photo of me with Imran Khan, claiming this shows my article about Shahbaz Sharif was planted. The photo was taken last year, when I interviewed him before the election. Heres the proof, he said while sharing the web link of the interview published on July 21, 2018 in the same paper”.

The report

The news report begins saying that Mr Sharif had been “feted” for years as a “Third World poster boy by Britain’s DFID, which poured more than £500 million of UK taxpayers’ money into his province in the form of aid”.

Quoting unidentified Pakistani “investigators”, it says that “all the time that DFID was heaping him and his government with praise and taxpayers’ cash, Shahbaz and his family were embezzling tens of millions of pounds of public money and laundering it in Britain”.

“DFID admits it is ‘well aware’ that Pakistan is a ‘corrupt environment’. However, since 2014, DFID has given more aid to Pakistan than any other country — up to £463 million a year,” says the report.

The Mail on Sunday — which has campaigned against Britain’s policy of spending 0.7 per cent of national income, currently about £14 billion a year, on foreign aid — was given exclusive access to some of the results of a high-level probe ordered by PM Khan, says the report.

The reporter claims to have interviewed some key witnesses held on remand in jail, including a UK citizen, Aftab Mehmood, who has confessed that “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”.

The newspaper says it can reveal “legal documents [that] allege that Shahbaz’s son-in-law received about £1 million from a fund established to rebuild the lives of earthquake victims”.

It says that Britain’s National Crime Agency is working closely with Pakistani investigators and Home Secretary Sajid Javid is discussing the possible extradition of members of Mr Sharif’s family who have taken refuge in London.

“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 newspaper while quoting the investigations being conducted by the ARU headed by Shahzad Akbar.

The report claims laundered payments were made to Mr Sharif’s children, his wife and his son-in-law Ali Imran. But, it adds, Mr Sharif “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 report lists 202 ‘personal remittances’ from the UK and the UAE into the bank accounts of Mr Sharif’s wife, two sons and two daughters.

“We noticed that someone called Manzoor Ahmed had sent a series of 13 payments from Birmingham worth £1.2 million to Shahbaz’s wife Nusrat and his sons Hamza and Suleman,” the report quoted one of the Pakistani investigators.

Another man who was said to have sent about £850,000 to Mr Sharif’s family from Birmingham via the HSBC was Mehboob Ali, a Lahore ‘street hawker’, who lived from taking tiny commissions from collecting old banknotes and changing them into new ones. The news reporter claims that he had met Mehboob Ali in Lahore.

“One case has already come to court – a guilty plea by Ikram Naveed, the former finance director of Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority (Erra), set up after the devastating quake of 2005, which received £54 million from DFID between then and 2012, both for immediate relief and long-term schemes to rebuild victims’ lives.

“Naveed is described in Pakistan as the ‘right hand man’ of Ali Imran – Shahbaz’s son-in-law who is married to his daughter Rabia.

“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,” claims the report.

DFID’s rebuttal

The DFID in its rebuttal regretted that the newspaper carried its “robust and clear response” to the question asked in the headline close to the bottom of the 2,500 word story.

A spokesman for the DFID said, “The UK’s financial support to Erra over this period was for payment by results – which means we only gave money once the agreed work, which was primarily focused on building schools, was completed, and the work audited and verified.”

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 the spokesman.

He said investigators in Pakistan “are convinced that some of the allegedly stolen money came from DFID-funded aid projects” without providing any substantial evidence this was the case with the earthquake fund.

“The piece goes on to quote Shahzad Akbar, Imran Khan’s ARU ‘chief, saying it ‘appears’ some money ‘may’ have been stolen from aid and development projects, again without offering any substantial evidence this was the case with Erra,” said the DFID spokesman.

Marriyum’s presser

PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb termed the report “baseless and a propaganda campaign” against the Sharif family and said it did not mention any UK government document.

“It is fabricated, baseless and a pack of lies that has been invented by Imran Khan’s conspiratorial mind,” she said.

“The story was planted at Banigala to a known controversial journalist of a UK newspaper who is based in Lahore,” claimed Ms Aurangzeb, while showing a picture of the reporter’s meeting with Mr Khan.

Ms Aurangzeb said the earthquake had hit in 2005 when military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf was ruing the country and Shahbaz Sharif and his family were living in exile. Moreover, she said, the earthquake had hit most parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Kashmir, and not Punjab. She said Mr Sharif had returned to the country by the end of 2007 and remained chief minister from 2008 to 2013.

Moreover, she said, the foreign aid was used through Erra, which was functioning under the administrative control of the then federal government of the PPP.

She said the federal and Punjab governments possessed all the record and after failing to prove any corruption against the Sharif family, they had now planted the story in the UK newspaper.

She alleged that Mr Khan was making the country controversial at the international level only because of his jealousy with Mr Sharif.

Ms Aurangzeb claimed that the whole story was based on the claims of ARU chief Shahzad Akbar and unknown investigators.

Firdous’s claim

Earlier, speaking at a news conference, SAPM on Information Dr Awan said the news report published in the UK newspaper had proved “ruthless corruption and money laundering” committed by the Sharif family. She said Shahbaz Sharif had deceived the British people as well as Pakistani nation through massive corruption and money laundering.

Terming it a “shameful act” by the “corruption king Shahbaz and his gang”, she said they had earned a bad name for Pakistan globally. She said all the responsible national institutions in Pakistan would now probe into this “nasty” corruption by Mr Sharif as exposed by the British newspaper.

She said the Sharif family had also weakened the national institutions for their personal gains and to protect their national and international corruption. She said they were “certified plunderers”.

“This is foreign media not any Pakistani media. You cannot deny this report about your massive corruption,” she said. She asked Shahbaz Sharif to honour his commitment and quit politics in the larger national interest “as your corruption has been proved globally”.

She said both the PML-N and the PPP were busy in “political acting” and deceiving the nation by staging their political dramas in the country on daily basis.

“It is an eye opener and a point of grave concern for entire Pakistani nation that now the foreign media is exposing this massive corruption and money laundering of the leading Pakistani plunderers, who have weakened the national institutions to cover their corruption,” she added.

Dr Awan said there was complete freedom of expression to the Pakistani media and the media was enjoying complete freedom as the PTI government was ensuring the right of freedom of expression and speech in Pakistan. She said some actors in Pakistan were giving an impression that the media did not have freedom in Pakistan.

She claimed “there was no act of any political revenge against anyone” in Pakistan. However, she said the corrupt would have to face the ruthless accountability”.

Abid Hussain Mehdi also contributed to the report from Sialkot

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2019