Silence of the lambs

Updated December 05, 2019

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

RARELY has silence been more deafening. For a government that based almost every aspect of its claim to power on the promise to recover looted wealth abroad and return it to the motherland, it is beyond comprehension why they are sitting so quietly at precisely the moment when the largest such haul is made in the city of London, along with a promise from the UK authorities that the money just seized will be returned to “the state of Pakistan”.

Read: UK agency accepts tycoon’s £190m offer after investigations

Facts are scarce in the whole affair, but we know the following. In August of this year, the National Crime Agency announced in a press release that it “has been granted freezing orders on eight bank accounts containing a total of more than GBP100 million, which is suspected to have derived from bribery and corruption in an overseas nation”. It did not cite any names, but went on to say that “[t]he orders will allow the NCA to further investigate the funds. If found to be derived from — or intended for use in — unlawful conduct, the NCA will seek to recover the money.”

The only mention of people up till now was this line: “[a]pproximately GBP20m held by a linked individual was frozen following a hearing in December 2018.”

It was only a few days ago that we learned the “linked individual” is Malik Riaz and his family. The NCA press release announcing the fact that a settlement had been reached as a “result of an investigation by the NCA into Malik Riaz Hussain” also added that in addition to the nine bank accounts already frozen, a flat located in 1 Hyde Park Place in London was also seized. The authority valued the flat at £50m.

As the news broke, to widespread applause from PTI champs, a strange unease was sensed in government ranks.

As the news broke and went viral on social media, to widespread applause from our PTI champs that the promise of the leader had finally borne its first fruit, a strange unease was sensed in the government. Their representatives, who are normally tripping over themselves to come on TV and discuss their accomplishments, were suddenly turning coy. Many anchors preferred to focus on other topics too. I saw three who were willing to probe the issue.

One had the government’s official spokesperson Firdous Ashiq Awan as his guest. He asked her why, after such a large recovery of ill-gotten gains from London, the government was so silent. She answered that Shahzad Akbar, the head of the prime minister’s own Asset Recovery Unit (ARU), would hold a press conference tomorrow (ie Wednesday) and provide all details, in addition to the role played by the government and “what compulsions of ours are connected with this affair”.

Sheikh Rashid, supposedly the railway minister but otherwise a full-time talking head on TV channels, appeared on another show, telling the anchor that “in the cabinet meeting we have been told to remain silent about this affair”.

Up to this writing, Shahzad Akbar had not appeared before the press, or on any TV show, to brief anybody. He made one public appearance in Islamabad on Wednesday, in which he touched on the NCA affair superficially, but nothing more. All we have is an oddly drafted press release, which was tweeted out the day the NCA made its revelations.

Akbar’s press release is off because it does two things that are unnecessary, given the facts. First it tries to link the property to the Sharif family, by mentioning that the flat was “previously owned by the son of the former Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif, namely Hassan Nawaz”. Second it tries to absolve Malik Riaz by saying the “settlement is a civil matter and does not represent a finding of guilt”.

Both these statements were entirely unnecessary. The previous owners, many were saying on social media, hurriedly sold it in March 2016 weeks before the Panama story broke because they were afraid it was about to be exposed. But the Panama case had nothing to do with this property, it was about the Avenfield flat which is nowhere close to the Hyde Park one. In fact, the Hyde Park property was discussed with the Joint Investigation Team and the court during the proceedings and never became an issue, mainly because its money trail and sale were all declared. The judgement makes no mention of it.

The other line, which tried to absolve Malik Riaz of guilt, was strangely tweeted in identical language by Malik Riaz himself two hours before Mr Akbar’s release. In an odd document written on a blank piece of paper held in someone’s hand, Riaz tweeted an image of a document that began “Note to Editors” and contained a few sentences that were reproduced in identical language in Akbar’s release two hours later. In fact, in Akbar’s release the sentence absolving Riaz of guilt appears twice. Either it was hurriedly written, or the point needed to be emphasised.

In either case, the impression is created that Malik Riaz was somehow involved in the drafting of Shahzad Akbar’s press release, and he tweeted out an earlier draft in haste seeing how rapidly the story was developing.

Now would be a good time for Shahzad Akbar to hold that press conference. What is up with all those London meetings between him and Malik Riaz in recent months? Why is the government so slow to own this but so quick to own surveillance on judges’ properties, as the ARU’s press release of June 1, 2019 shows? What does he have to say about Mr Riaz’ claim that the funds seized by the UK authorities will be used to settle his liabilities in the Supreme Court’s Bahria Town case?

Sinister weeds grow in the silence. It would be a good idea for Mr Akbar to soon hold that press conference his government promised he would.

The writer is a member of staff.

khurram.husain@gmail.com

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2019