ISLAMABAD: The Monday hearing of a suo motu case about the mishandling of Haj affairs was widely expected to be a stormy one, but no one had possibly foreseen Religious Affairs Minister Hamid Saeed Kazmi coming up with quite an ‘honest’ statement and a novel defence, claiming that corruption in Haj arrangements this year was far less than in previous years.
“Even if there is corruption, it is far less this year than what had been committed previously,” Mr Kazmi said before a special bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and comprising Justice Javed Iqbal, Justice Tassadduq Hussain Jillani, Justice Raja Fayyaz Ahmed, Justice Ghulam Rabbani and Justice Khalilurur Rehman Ramday.
The court had taken notice of media reports, an appeal filed by Dr Khalid Mehmood Soomro, a parliamentary committee member who recently visited Saudi Arabia and accused officials of the Haj Directorate of being involved in corrupt practices, complaints sent by three members of the National Assembly and two of the Senate, a letter sent to the chief justice by Saudi Prince Bandar Bin Khalid Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud alleging embezzlement and a number of applications received by Justice Ramday in person during the performance of Haj from pilgrims narrating their ordeal and complaining about corruption and mismanagement.
The bench expressed disappointment over the explanation given by Religious Affairs Secretary Agha Sarwar Qazilbash who on a number of occasions had admitted instances of corruption in the hiring of accommodation for pilgrims and stated that he had invited trouble for himself.
The chief justice even raised questions about the justification for his continuing to hold the job.
The court grilled the secretary for the pathetic treatment meted out to pilgrims by the ministry.
The bench was informed by Establishment Secretary Khushnood Lashari that the appointment of Director General of Haj Rao Shakeel Ahmed, who is under detention, had been approved by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani knowing well that he was facing two corruption references in accountability courts and his name had been removed from the exit control list on a mere SMS (short message service) from Interior Minister Rehman Malik.
The term ‘Rehmani Haj’ because of which the PIA had to pay a penalty of Rs9 million to the Saudi authorities and the role of Bahria Town chairman Malik Riaz also came up when the religious affairs secretary claimed that those who had performed Haj as guests of the interior minister were financed by the Bahria Town.
The secretary, however, denied that PIA had to bear the brunt of the Rehmani Haj as compensation.
“If Riaz Malik is so rich then why is he not paying taxes?” asked the chief justice. He recalled that the apex court was seized with a number of cases against him.
MNAs Bilal Yasin and Pirzada Syed Ahmed Imran and Senators Dr Khalid Soomro and Saleh Shah, members of the parliament’s standing committee on religious affairs who had visited Saudi Arabia much before the Haj and compiled a report highlighting instances of corruption, also appeared before the bench.
They said in their report that Ahmad Faiz Muhammad Shafi, a Pakistani national who was involved in controversies and allegedly facing criminal charges, had been employed by the ministry’s building department to hire accommodation for pilgrims on the recommendations of religious affairs minister who had even proposed to issue an official passport to him.
They requested the court to give exemplary punishment to people involved in the scandal. However, Bilal Yasin said he had no evidence to prove the allegations levelled by some people against the prime minister.
The bench was also not happy with the performance of the Federal Investigation Agency whose Director General Waseem Ahmed did not bother to appear before it and sent a subordinate.
The court asked why had Rao Shakil been made a scapegoat and why was only he facing the inquiry when a committee was responsible for poor accommodation acquired for pilgrims. The court ordered the religious affairs secretary not to leave the country without first seeking permission from the prime minister and asked him to consider returning 700 Saudi riyals each to some 22,000 pilgrims who faced hardship in Mina and were forced to stay in places without the facilities of running water, toilet and electricity and without arrangements for food and transport.
The secretary will also ensure effecting notices issued by the court to some 600 private tour operators for Dec 9. He was also asked to produce the list of buildings acquired for the pilgrims and the Saudi policy on Haj.
Interior Secretary Qamar Zaman was ordered to again place the name of Rao Shakil on the ECL.
Minister Kazmi replied in the affirmative when asked if Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Umar Ali Sherdil had any animosity towards him.
The ambassador has blamed the minister and others for the pathetic Haj managements. The court asked Attorney General Maulvi Anwarul Haq to check whether the ambassador could attend the next hearing.
The minister also criticised the media for levelling allegations against him without any substance or evidence. He said he would submit a proper reply to the court.
NAB’s additional prosecutor general submitted reports on details of corruption charges against Rao Shakil.