'Are you untouchable?' Shahzad Akbar asks after Bilawal takes issue with being summoned by NAB

Updated 13 Feb 2020

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PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari speaks to media after appearing before NAB on Thursday in Islamabad. — DawnNewsTV
PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari speaks to media after appearing before NAB on Thursday in Islamabad. — DawnNewsTV
PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari arrives at  National Accountability Bureau's (NAB) old headquarters in Rawalpindi on Thursday. — DawnNewsTV
PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari arrives at National Accountability Bureau's (NAB) old headquarters in Rawalpindi on Thursday. — DawnNewsTV

The government and PPP were at odds on Thursday following Bilawal Bhutto Zardari's appearance before the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to record his statement in the fake accounts and money laundering case.

The PPP chairperson appeared before the bureau after being summoned three times. According to the anti-graft watchdog, Bilawal has 25 per cent shares in the private firm Opal-225, a joint venture of Zardari Group.

Addressing a press conference after his appearance, the PPP chairperson had raised questions about why he was asked to appear before the accountability watchdog. Meanwhile, Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Accountability Shahzad Akbar asked if the PPP leader was so "untouchable" that an institution couldn't call him in for questioning.

Questions about NAB summons

Bilawal said that over a year ago, the then chief justice of Pakistan had stated that he was not guilty, adding that he had presented himself before the authorities three times and had also answered the bureau's questions.

In January 2019, the Supreme Court while hearing the fake accounts case had ordered that the names of Bilawal and Sindh Chief Minister Murad Shah be removed from both the exit control list and the joint investigation team's report on a probe into the case.

The court had also ordered that the case be forwarded to NAB and directed the anti-corruption watchdog to wrap up its investigation within two months.

Addressing the press conference today Bilawal, the last questionnaire was issued in May of last year.

"They had no objections [...] all of a sudden what happened in December when the first notice was issued?"

Bilawal alleged that he was issued another notice right after PPP announced a campaign against the current PTI government.

He said that he had a detailed talk with the NAB team and they had issued him a questionnaire today. According to NAB sources, the PPP chairperson's statement was recorded and he was issued a written questionnaire, adding that he has been given 10 days to submit his response.

"If I wasn't even a public office holder at the time, what sense does it make that NAB summon me?" he asked.

'Are you untouchable?'

Later, the premier's special assistant Akbar held a press conference in response to the PPP chairperson's queries about why he was asked to appear before NAB.

Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Accountability Shahzad Akbar addressing a press conference on Thursday. — DawnNewsTV
Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Accountability Shahzad Akbar addressing a press conference on Thursday. — DawnNewsTV

Akbar said that Bilawal had been summoned with regards to the JV-Opal joint venture Opal-225 in which NAB is conducting an investigation. He explained that the case was part of an investigation which was referred to NAB by the Supreme Court's Joint Investigation Team (JIT).

He said that in the JV-225 case the Zardari Group is accused of money laundering from the company's accounts. Akbar added that they were accused of building properties from the money taken from these accounts.

"Unlike Bilawal, I will not lie to you, it is an allegation right now, it has to be proven and go before courts. But before that, you have to appear before investigative agencies."

"Are you so untouchable that you can't be called by any institution for questioning?" Akbar asked.

Responding to Bilawal's remarks that a case was made against him despite the fact that he was a seven-year-old when he became a shareholder of the company under question, Akbar said: "Bachay (child) this property was purchased between 2011-2014 when your abba jan (father) was the president."

Additionally, responding to the PPP chairperson's remark's that the former chief justice had declared him innocent, Akbar said: "Bilawal Sahib I wish you had received some education in Pakistan."

The premier's special assistant said that the Supreme Court had not declared Bilawal as "not guilty but may have said he is innocent".

"Remember no one is above the law, if you are called somewhere you will have to give a reply.

"You do not have a certificate from anywhere that you are untouchable. You were untouchable in the old Pakistan, you are not untouchable now."

Reading the written order of the Supreme Court under discussion, Akbar said it had stated that Bilawal and the Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah's name should be removed from the Exit Control List (ECL).

He added that the order had said this would not prevent NAB from probing their cases further.

PPP leaders show support

Various party leaders — including PPP Punjab President Qamar Zaman Kaira, former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, PPP Senator Sherry Rehman and PPP Secretary General Nayyar Bukhari — and supporters gathered outside NAB's old headquarters in Rawalpindi ahead of Bilawal's appearance.

PPP Senator Sherry Rehman addresses a press conference on Thursday. — DawnNewsTV
PPP Senator Sherry Rehman addresses a press conference on Thursday. — DawnNewsTV

Addressing a press conference alongside other PPP leaders, Kaira said: "We've been speaking about the NAB-Niazi nexus, now courts are also speaking about it," he said, adding that courts were saying NAB was "ill-prepared".

Meanwhile, Rehman said that Bilawal could not be made a party in the case NAB was questioning him about as he was not a public office-bearer [at the time].

Case against Bilawal

The latest NAB notice sent to Bilawal, dated February 7, stated: "You are hereby again called upon to appear before Combined Investiga­tion Team-4 of NAB (Rawalpindi) along with the following record for clarifications and recording your plea on 13-2-2020 at 1100hours without failure.

"Submit attested copies of resolutions of board of directors for the period 01-01-2008 to 01-12-2019 and any other evidence you want to produce in support of your plea. You are advised that failing to comply with this notice may entail penal consequences as provided in Section 2 of National Accoun­tability Ordinance-1999."

Prior to this, he was sent two notices in December last year but had termed the call-up notice served to him by the anti-corruption watchdog as "unconstitutional and illegal".

PPP leaders have been accused of transferring billions of rupees to Opal-225 via fake bank accounts. The company also took loans of billions of rupees from banks.

According to NAB, Bilawal had 25 per cent shares in a private firm, Opal-225, a joint venture of the Zardari Group.

The anti-graft watchdog, which has been investigating fake bank accounts and money laundering case against PPP leaders, filed eight references in the Accountability Court, Islamabad, on December 9, 2018.

On May 29, 2019, the bureau had served a 32-point questionnaire to the PPP chairperson during his short appearance in the bureau’s headquarters.

The NAB headquarters had already shifted the fake bank accounts and money laundering case from its Karachi office to Rawalpindi office last year. The investigations in the case are being faced by 172 important personalities, including Bilawal, former president Asif Ali Zardari, his sister Faryal Talpur, former chief minister Qaim Ali Shah, incumbent minister Anwar Siyal, Bahria Town owner Malik Riaz and others.

Their names were placed on the Exit Control List (ECL), but Bilawal and Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah's names were later removed from the travel ban list on a Supreme Court directive.