TOWARDS the end of 2019, something unusual happened at a federal cabinet meeting in Islamabad. Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Accountability Shahzad Akbar was allowed to present a ‘non-agenda item’; he had with him a sealed envelope that he said contained a non-disclosure agreement. It pertained to a multi-million pound settlement that the UK-based National Crime Agency (NCA) had recently arrived at with property tycoon Malik Riaz. According to a source present at the meeting, “[Human Rights Minister] Shireen Mazari objected, saying, ‘What approval are we giving when we don’t even know its contents?’ We were told that if it is opened there are implications for national security and the UK government also has reservations”.

The NCA investigates money laundering and illicit finances derived from criminal activity in the UK and abroad, and in the case of the latter, returns the stolen money to affected states. It seems that Mr Riaz had for some time been the subject of a ‘dirty money’ probe by the Agency. On Dec 3, 2019 it announced a £190 million out-of-court civil settlement with Mr Riaz — its largest till date — adding that it “did not represent a finding of guilt”.

The Pakistani state went out of its way to ensure that the property tycoon’s £190m settlement in the UK worked in his favour

In this country, on the pretext of the non-disclosure agreement, the matter was swept under the carpet. Despite its claims of holding the corrupt to account and bringing back ill-gotten gains stashed abroad by Pakistanis, the PTI government has been curiously tight-lipped about the asset forfeiture deal.

More than one year on, the episode remains cloaked in secrecy. With the help of documents obtained by UK-based investigative journalism project Finance Uncovered, Dawn has pieced together a more complete picture.

The deal with the NCA took on particular relevance for Pakistani citizens when Mr Riaz tweeted: “I sold our legal & declared property in UK to pay 190M £ to Supreme Court Pakistan against Bahria Town Karachi.” It may be recalled that a few months earlier, in March 2019, the Supreme Court had accepted Mr Riaz’s offer of Rs460bn as settlement dues by his real estate firm Bahria Town Ltd after it was found to have illegally acquired thousands of acres of land on Karachi’s outskirts in district Malir.

The amount, which translates to almost $3 billion, was historic in scale. But the settlement with the NCA later that year was a travesty because, thanks to the Pakistan government, it afforded Mr Riaz a shocking reprieve.

Lawyer Farrukh Qureshi of Samdani and Qureshi described it thus: “It is as if one is apprehended with the proceeds of a crime, and instead of such proceeds being reimbursed to the person wronged, they are used as reparations for another crime. …The amount recovered should [have] come straight back to Pakistan, rather than being put back into Malik Riaz’s pocket.”

Indeed, the British law-enforcement agency in this case may have allowed itself to be manipulated by Pakistan’s power brokers. The ‘accountability czar’, Mr Akbar, did not respond to Dawn’s questions despite repeated requests.

The settlement included 1 Hyde Park

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2021

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