Embezzlement allegations

Updated July 17, 2019

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THE ripples created by corruption scandals unearthed under the PTI government have now reached foreign shores.

The UK-based paper Mail on Sunday has come out with explosive revelations that Shahbaz Sharif during his tenure as Punjab chief minister embezzled millions of pounds out of around £500m that Britain’s Department for International Aid has poured into the province for upliftment projects.

According to the report, a substantial chunk of the money for the rehabilitation of the victims of the 2005 earthquake was also diverted into the personal accounts of the PML-N leader and his family through an elaborate money-laundering scheme.

Shahzad Akbar, special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan, at a press conference on Monday displayed copies of pay orders as evidence that millions of rupees had been illegally transferred from the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority to a company owned by Mr Sharif’s son-in-law.

The former chief minister has vowed to file a defamation suit against the newspaper, as well as the prime minister and Mr Akbar.

DFID for its part has issued a rebuttal of the MoS story, saying that “Our robust systems protected UK taxpayers from fraud”.

Nevertheless, the allegations are of a most serious nature, and their veracity or otherwise must be established beyond doubt.

If proven correct, they could call into question DFID’s oversight mechanisms and imperil its development aid to Pakistan, which is the largest recipient of its international funding.

Mr Sharif, if he is to establish his innocence, must follow through with his stated intention to sue the publication for what he claims is a “fabricated and misleading story”.

Indeed, the PML-N, which accuses the government of pursuing a politically motivated accountability agenda, should consider that a successfully prosecuted defamation suit in a British court would present an opportunity for the party to feel vindicated in its stance.

At the same time, one wonders why the government did not hand over what it believes is incriminating evidence for NAB to investigate, rather than extending robust cooperation to a British tabloid — that too one which has been successfully sued several times. Instead, the matter seems to have become yet another media trial which does not strengthen the perception of an accountability process free of political bias.

Moreover, when the government has taken a strong position against media coverage to convicts and prisoners under trial, why was the writer of the MoS story given access to an individual arrested by NAB on suspicion of money laundering?

And why was DFID’s earthquake rehabilitation funding directed towards Punjab at all when the brunt of the disaster was borne by people in KP and Azad Kashmir?

One also hopes the government will be more forthcoming about how money was allegedly siphoned from funds handled by Erra, a federal authority, for the benefit of the then Punjab chief minister.

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2019