THE long-awaited verdict in the PTI foreign funding case is a damning indictment of a party that claims to base its politics on the rule of law.
There is no ambiguity about the ECP ruling that the PTI received “unauthorised funding” from foreign nationals in gross violation of the law. The party has also been charged with misdeclaration of its sources of funding, that included business groups from the United States, Britain and some other countries.
With most of the facts already available to the public, there was nothing unexpected in the ECP verdict. But more important is what happens next. The party has been issued a show-cause notice that may mark the beginning of a long legal battle. Donations for a foreign political party also violate the laws of the countries from where the funding comes. That may have serious legal consequences for the donor companies.
There may not be any danger of the party being proscribed, but the offence could land its leadership into serious trouble. Some legal experts point out that the verdict, which reveals that not only did the party receive unauthorised foreign funding but also concealed the information, may be used to invoke Article 62(1)(f) of the Constitution against the party chief.
Some years earlier, the Supreme Court, ruling on Hanif Abbasi’s petition calling for the disqualification of Imran Khan, had absolved the PTI chief and had ordered the petitioner to approach the Election Commission. But it is not clear yet whether the government will now file a reference against the PTI in the Supreme Court on the basis of the ECP ruling. A legal battle could be a long-drawn one.
The PTI might not be proscribed but its leadership could be in serious trouble.
It is for the first time in the country’s history that the Election Commission has indicted any political party for unauthorised funding.
Other parties have also been accused of getting financial help from foreign sources but the charges have never been substantiated. It is important to note that the PTI has also not been charged for receiving funds from foreign powers that could have led to its proscription.
It has taken years for the commission to conclude its findings in the case that has been troubling the former ruling party. The prohibited funding case was filed by PTI founding member Akbar S. Babar and has been pending since November 2014. Once a close associate of Imran Khan, who had also been looking after the party’s financial matters, he had, in his petition, alleged serious irregularities in party funding from Pakistan and abroad.
He reportedly produced documentary evidence substantiating his allegations. The investigation stretched on for years.
Every effort was made by the PTI leadership to obstruct the proceedings. Frequent changes of lawyers and other delaying tactics prolonged the case. A campaign against the chief election commissioner was also meant to raise questions about the impartiality of the constitutional body and stop the investigation.
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Being in power for nearly four years also helped the PTI force the delay. In an unprecedented move, the two PTI-led provincial assemblies in Punjab and KP have lately passed resolutions demanding the removal of the chief election commissioner — just before the commission announced its ruling. The attack on the commission is likely to escalate after the indictment.
A scrutiny committee constituted to examine the PTI’s financing had submitted a detailed report earlier this year highlighting the gross violation of funding laws committed by the party leadership.
The party was alleged to have collected millions of dollars from foreigners, including Indian and other companies. The report was based on the record of fund transactions requisitioned through the State Bank. The report confirmed that the PTI received under-reported funds and concealed several of its bank accounts.
Some of the charges were reinforced by an investigative report published last week in the Financial Times. The report claimed that the Abraaj group headed by Arif Naqvi collected millions of dollars in the name of charity and the amount was later transferred to PTI accounts. The donors included foreigners as well.
It was already known that Abraaj has been a major donor of the PTI. But it was not clear whether its chief had also collected funds from foreigners. Imran Khan has never denied his close association with Arif Naqvi who is now under house arrest in the UK on charges of misappropriation of funds and irregularities in his Dubai-based multibillion-dollar private equity firm. The US has sought his extradition. The FT report dealt a serious blow to the PTI’s defence in the probe.
The FT provides an extensive account of how the funds were collected from individuals and foreign companies. Most interesting is the description of a T20 cricket tournament at Naqvi’s private cricket ground in Oxfordshire in 2012 where participants were asked to contribute £2,500 for an unidentified charity. Most of the donors might not have been aware that the money was going to a political party.
The FT report may prompt fresh investigations against Naqvi for violating the law of the host country. The ECP verdict may open a number of Pandora’s boxes, with repercussions far beyond Pakistan.
While the PTI leaders have put on a brave face, dismissing any serious legal and political consequences of the verdict, the rival parties see it as an opportunity to step up their attack on Imran Khan and question the moral superiority he claims. The ruling on foreign funding may also blunt the PTI’s narrative of ‘imported government’ and the ‘foreign conspiracy’ aimed at ousting him.
Yet there is no sign that the verdict will affect Imran Khan’s political support base. But the whole episode raises questions about his integrity and adherence to the law and democratic values, which he never stops talking about.
Breaking the law and violating the Constitution is certainly not a big deal for him when it comes to his own interests. The ECP verdict has further vitiated the country’s political atmosphere and increased polarisation. What is most dangerous is the attempt to undermine the authority of state institutions and weaken the political process.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2022