• Zardari’s luxury cars ‘most expensive’ purchase on record; Imran retained most of 111 gifts received
• Experts question under-valuation of gifts; call for changing rules, price threshold for retaining items

ISLAMABAD / LAHORE: The release of a list of Toshakhana beneficiaries since the year 2002 has raised various questions, including the under-assessment of the value of gifts and the unsaid policy of reciprocation, which officials say has yet to come under scrutiny.

Data released by the government over the weekend showed that it wasn’t just PTI chief Imran Khan who benefitted from the rules regarding the purchase of gifts from the official state registry; rather, nearly every prime minister from Shaukat Aziz to Shehbaz Sharif has purchased or retained items from the Toshakhana.

The list includes the usual suspects, such as politicians and bureaucrats, but the list of retentions and ‘their pettiness’ is astounding: shirts, handkerchiefs, sarees, clothes for shirts, watches, fruits, ornamental daggers and cufflinks etc.

For example, former president Asif Ali Zardari received at least 182 presents during his stint as the president and retained almost all of them after making some payments against these presents. Mr Zardari retained a Lexus and a BMW worth a little more than Rs107 million but paid Rs16.17m to retain these vehicles on Jan 26, 2009. These gifts are among the most expensive presents retained by a public office holder.

Imran Khan, who is also facing court proceedings, had retained gifts worth more than Rs100m by Sept 24, 2018, just weeks after coming to power, and paid Rs20.1m to keep them. Along with his wife, the former premier got more than 111 gifts and retained most of them, as per the released documents. On May 18, 2021, a separate gift received by the wife of the former PM was taken after paying Rs2.9m against a value of Rs5.8m.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his wife Kulsoom Nawaz received at least 65 presents. The former PM chose to keep most of these gifts that include expensive watches and a bulletproof vehicle. In Jan 2016, Mr Sharif received presents worth Rs38 million and paid Rs7.6 million to retain these gifts. In Feb 2016, Mr Sharif paid a little more than Rs3.2 million to retain presents worth over Rs16 million. Kulsoom Nawaz paid Rs10.8 million to acquire precious gifts worth more than Rs54 million on Jan 13, 2016.

Sameena Shahid, the wife of former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, retained a gift worth more than Rs99 million after she paid Rs19.9 million in Oct 2017 against a jewellery set. Mr Abbasi’s son Nadir Khaqan paid over Rs3m to retain a Rs17 million wristwatch on April 17, 2018. Similarly, his other son Abdullah Khaqan, on the same day, paid Rs1.09m against a watch worth Rs5.5 million.

On May 12 last year, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif received a Rolex watch worth Rs140m which he deposited in Toshakhana. As per the document, this watch was put on display at the Prime Minister’s House.

PML-N leader Khawaja Asif retained multiple gifts on Dec 5, 2017, which were worth at least Rs44 million. The minister, however, paid Rs8.8m to acquire these gifts.

The late military dictator Pervez Musharraf showed complete disregard for the Toshakhana rules. He along with his family received more than six dozen gifts. Most of them he retained – most free of cost and some after payments of a meagre amount. On April 22, 2006, he was gifted a Toyota Lexus whose value could not be assessed since the former president did declare the gift but failed to deposit it in the state repository.

His prime minister Shaukat Aziz did the same thing. He declared a Toyota Lexus on the same day but did not deposit the present, whereas a former Balochistan chief minister declared Toyota VXR but did not deposit the gift either.

Under-valued

Experts Dawn spoke to pointed out the undervaluation of the articles, whose assessed cost was kept significantly low, while the retention cost was even nominal for the undue benefit of the recipients.

They have also highlighted another anomaly, alleging foul play in omitting the exchange rate of the articles with the passage of time. Given the inflation rate in the country that has always been on the rise, the valuation in the current times should have been done after taking inflation and the exchange rate into account. The cost of ‘the gifts’, experts say, would have been shocking if these factors were taken into account.

Javed Hassan, an economist, interpreted the purchases and explained: “These gifts were retained at 20pc of the assessed value in 2009. Subsequently, the price was raised to 50pc. This 30pc becomes a huge difference. Add compound inflation for the last 13 years – because the list is revealed now – and the damages to the state exchequer get multiplied by three to four times.”

“We need to deal with the very law that allows this kind of windfall for the ruling elite. They should not be auctioned, except for those things that lose value with the passage of time (like vehicles). The rest should go to the state, for a respectable display at appropriate places,” Hassan says.

Former finance minister Miftah Ismail saw it as yet another reflection of ‘elite capture’. At different stages, different rates (15, 20 and 50pc) were applied for retention, but all of them benefitted the ruling elite. “Under-assessment has been another issue. The solution to it all is ‘simply plug it’; the law should be enacted to stop individuals from retaining these gifts. Do whatever you want to do with them – retain them for exhibition halls, auction them to the public and give money to the state but stop individual purchases by the state functionaries,” he suggests.

But educationist and former caretaker chief minister Hassan Askari Rizvi thinks the law covers such purchases, in his view the issue is one of ethics of such buys.

“There should be a cut-off line (price wise) beyond which all gifts should go to the state. No one should be allowed to retain them, or, if one has to, he should pay 100pc price,” he said.

Calling for the release of data from years prior to 2002, noted journalist and TV host Talat Hussain asked whether politicians or bureaucrats alone were the recipients of this state largesse.

“Have army men, judges or chief minister also benefitted? If yes, where is their list?”

Thirdly, he asked, what has been the valuation process. “How much was it rigged? What has been the expertise to evaluate custom-made or non-branded gifts?”

Reciprocity

But while everyone is busy poring over who got what, an angle that has hitherto been ignored is that whenever an official delegation receives a gift, in many cases it needs to be reciprocated as well.

The costs of these counter-gifts, which sources claim are purchased on the state’s dime, also run into the millions of rupees.

“When a president, prime minister, federal minister or federal secretary receive a gift, they also gave gifts to the other side and these presents are purchased by the state or the relevant ministry,” a highly placed source told Dawn on Monday.

These items can include swords, carpets, leather items, woolen shawls, paintings, show-pieces, souvenirs, ornaments, gold jewellery and jewellery boxes etc.

But while there is a record of most gifts received by state functionaries, there was no record of gifts given by these public office holders in return and how much was spent on those items.

No laws broken

Former PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who emerged as one of the people who had availed themselves of Toshakhana gifts, told Geo News on Monday night that the receiver of the foreign gift became its sole owner and he/she had the right to sell it onwards after paying the 20 per cent cost, fixed by the Toshakhana.

Speaking to Shahzeb Khanzada, he claimed these gifts were given to individuals and not to the public office they occupied. “These gifts are the property of individuals and not the posts,” he added.

Mr Abbasi also revealed that he had re-gifted several of the items he retained from the Toshakhana, saying that he had distributed them among his relatives and friends.

But when asked if selling foreign gifts was no crime, why was PTI chief Imran Khan in the dock, Mr Abbasi replied that Mr Khan’s “crime” was selling the items before he had paid 20pc of their price to the Toshakhana.

Irfan Aslam in Lahore also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2023

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