High-powered cell formed to investigate offshore firm owners

Published October 5, 2021
Prime Minister Imran Khan made the decision for form a high-powered cell at a meeting of his spokespersons, during which a threadbare discussion on the Pandora Leaks took place. — APP/File
Prime Minister Imran Khan made the decision for form a high-powered cell at a meeting of his spokespersons, during which a threadbare discussion on the Pandora Leaks took place. — APP/File

• NAB will handle cases of cabinet members, as opposition seeks their removal
• Corruption, money laundering, tax evasion cases to be referred to NAB, FIA, FBR, respectively
• Pemra, information ministry to find if owners of media houses committed any irregularities

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minis­ter Imran Khan on Monday formed a high-powered cell to investigate if any irregularity had been committed by the 700 Pakistanis named in the Pandora Papers including federal cabinet members, politicians, retired generals, owners of media houses and others in establishing offshore companies.

About federal ministers and some prominent leaders of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), the prime minister categorically stated that they would have to “clear themselves”.

A separate probe will be launched by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) to investigate if media owners who, according to the papers, also established companies in the “safe tax havens” had committed any wrongdoings.

The prime minister made these decisions at a meeting of his spokespersons during which a threadbare discussion on the Pandora Leaks took place. “The prime minister was adamant that those who have been accused in Pandora Papers of having offshore firms will have to clear themselves,” said Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry while speaking to Dawn following the meeting.

He, however, made it clear the prime minister had not asked any of the cabinet members to quit before clearing themselves.

Law minister to head investigation cell

Law Minister Farogh Naseem, a source said, would head the investigation cell that would also comprise National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) and Federal Investigation Agency officials.

The information minister said the terms of reference of the cell would be announced within a day or so.

Released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) on Sunday, Pandora Papers comprising millions of documents showed prominent figures and leaders across the world have used offshore tax havens to stash assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Revealed: List of all Pakistanis named in Pandora Papers so far

In a tweet, Mr Chaudhry said the investigation cell, formed under the PM’s Inspection Commission, would “question all individuals that are part of Pandora Leaks and facts will be placed before the nation”.

Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Farrukh Habib said the cell would determine whether public office holders had declared their foreign assets. “If not, a corruption case will be referred to NAB. In case of money laundering, the case will go to the FIA,” he said.

In case of non-public office holders, the tax evasion matter would be forwarded to the FBR.

The exposé revealed that key members of PM Khan’s inner circle, including cabinet members, their families, political allies and major financial backers, have secretly owned an array of offshore companies and trusts holding millions of dollars of hidden wealth.

However, the opposition demanded removal of cabinet members and close aides to the prime minister from their offices and positions after the ICIJ investigation revealed their names.

The source privy to the spokespersons’ meeting said the premier minister decided that cases of the cabinet members would be sent to NAB for investigation. The meeting reached consensus that only those who had evaded tax or made offshore firms through ill-gotten money would be taken to task, otherwise no action would be taken against others because establishing offshore firms was not a crime, the source added.

Under the law, setting up an offshore company is not an offence or crime if the company is not involved in any illegal activity. However, those who have not declared these companies in their returns as assets may face legal action.

The documents contain no suggestion that Mr Khan himself owns offshore companies, according to the ICIJ.

Among those whose financial holdings have been exposed are Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin and his family, Minister for Water Resources Moonis Elahi, former federal minister Senator Faisal Vawda, and the son of PM’s former adviser for finance and revenue Waqar Masood Khan. The names of Minister for Industries and Production Khusro Bakhtiyar’s brother Omer Bakhtiyar, PTI leader Abdul Aleem Khan, PPP’s Sharjeel Memon and PML-N leader Ishaq Dar’s son Ali Dar are also mentioned in the papers. Similarly, the papers also named the National Bank president, NIT managing director, family members of some ex-army officers, owners of media houses and businessmen. The records also reveal the offshore dealings of a PTI donor, Arif Naqvi, who is facing fraud charges in the United States.

In another tweet, Mr Chaudhry said it was “very unfortunate” that the names of the owners of all of Pakistan’s major media houses were in the Pandora Papers “and some have been accused of money laundering [in the past]”.

“The information ministry is commencing a transparent investigation in this regard and Pemra is being asked to seek answers [from the media moguls],” he said.

Shortly after the massive disclosure on Sunday, Prime Minister Khan had announced that his government would investigate all the 700 citizens named in the report. “We welcome the Pandora Papers exposing the ill-gotten wealth of elites, accumulated through tax evasion & corruption & laundered out to financial ‘havens’,” the prime minister had tweeted.

“My government will investigate all our citizens mentioned in the Pandora Papers and if any wrongdoing is established we will take appropriate action. I call on the international community to treat this grave injustice as similar to the climate change crisis,” he had stated.

Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2021

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